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Bloomington Emergency Room Staff Feeling Strain From Year Of Pandemic

IU Heath Bloomington emergency room physician Dr. Andrew Watters.

IU Health Bloomington emergency room physician Dr. Andrew Watters (Joey Mendolia/WTIU)

This past year has been a trying one for Dr. Drew Watters and the staff at IU Health Bloomington in many ways.

“I think professionally, due to the volume of sick people, was very stressful,” Watters said. “But even more so as emotionally and spiritually, the stress was massive.”

But that was to be expected.

A recent study from the American College of Emergency Physicians reports 87% of emergency room physicians report feeling more stress since the start of the pandemic.

Watters said working in emergency medicine for 14 years has left him numb to a lot of things that would shock a normal person.

But the pandemic continues to challenge him in new ways.

“You may know there's a very good chance they're not going to survive, and you can't let their family in to see them,” Watters said. “They can't have the grandkids there. And so to keep the family separated, knowing this could be the end is also difficult. So, there's an additional emotional, you know, damage from that.”

When COVID-19 initially arrived in the United States, it was somewhat limited to Washington state and New York City.

That gave the IU Health Bloomington Hospital time to coordinate resources and personal protection equipment, but there was no preparing for what was to come.

“Early on, we tried to really quarantine separately,” Watters said. “We divided areas of the ER for high risk for COVID and lower risk for COVID. As the numbers got higher, though, it became impossible, because everybody coming in the door is potential COVID, no matter what they're here for.”

Monroe County recorded its first death in mid-April and by the end of October had more than 35 hundred cases and nearly 40 deaths. And that put more stress on an already strained health care system.

“When you get admitted for COVID, you're not in the hospital for a day or two, like you might be for a broken bone. You often spend weeks and weeks in the ICU, which means there's not room for the next patient to get a bed.”

“When you get admitted for COVID, you're not in the hospital for a day or two, like you might be for a broken bone,” Watters said. “You often spend weeks and weeks in the ICU, which means there's not room for the next patient to get a bed.”

So, at times, the hallways in the ER -- which usually operates at near-full capacity -- were lined with beds full of patients.

“Thanksgiving hit, and then it all went south,” Watters said. “That's where our numbers went up and things got a lot busier here.”

The post-holiday surge meant December was the deadliest in the county. Cases rose by 2,800 and deaths jumped by 42 – more than the first seven months of the pandemic combined.

Watters said the staff leaned on each other as the crisis grew, and there was a great deal of support from the community. But, as happened nationally, COVID fatigue began to set in.

“Eventually support often wanes with any novelty, you know, going away, and then just the day in day out grind of just feeling like you're trying to prop up things is really a tough strain for everybody in healthcare,” he said.

One year into the pandemic, cases, hospitalizations and deaths are all declining, thanks in part to vaccines becoming more available and to people still following the CDC’s preventative guidelines.

But, having worked on the front lines and seeing first-hand the impact of COVID-19, Watters is frustrated by the people who have spent a year downplaying the virus.

“This is not an infection that is a world-ending apocalypse infection, this is just a really bad infection that we need to treat seriously."

“This is not an infection that is a world-ending apocalypse infection, this is just a really bad infection that we need to treat seriously,” Watters said. “And it is just unmatched. And let us see just how woefully prepared we were systematically and professionally and socially, to deal with this kind of an issue.”

For the latest news and resources about COVID-19, bookmark our Coronavirus In Indiana page here.

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