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Florida Health Workers Say They're Feeling The Strain Due To Coronavirus Outbreak

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Florida continues to set daily records for new cases of the coronavirus. And while most hospitals in the state still have room to take in more patients, Stephanie Colombini of member station WUSF reports that some doctors and nurses say they are being pushed to the limits.

STEPHANIE COLOMBINI, BYLINE: 63-year-old Marissa Lee has one word to describe her work experience during the pandemic - chaos. She's been a nurse for more than 30 years and works in a labor and delivery unit at Osceola Regional Medical Center near Orlando.

MARISSA LEE: I supposedly work at the happy floor. But I'm going to tell you, nurses on my floor have been exposed to COVID.

COLOMBINI: Lee says some of her colleagues have even gotten the coronavirus, and she blames inadequate protective gear and also a state that reopened too soon. When staff can't come into work because they're exposed, Lee says everyone else has to pick up the slack. She says nurses are being floated to other units outside their scope of expertise and are being assigned to more patients than usual. She says she can't always spend enough time supporting the mother she's treating because she's running from one to the next, just like her coworkers in the ICU who are treating COVID-19 patients.

LEE: Somebody is going to get neglected. As a nurse, none of us want any patient to be neglected.

COLOMBINI: The experience has taken a toll on Lee, who says she recently had to turn down a request to work an extra shift.

LEE: And I'm going, oh, my God. I'm so exhausted. Do I need to go in and help my co-workers? Am I going to be any good to them because of my exhaustion?

COLOMBINI: Emergency department staff have been dealing with these issues for months. Dr. Angus Jameson works at Tampa General Hospital and is also medical director of emergency services for Pinellas County. He says the situation is getting worse. For example, since the pandemic began, hospitals in his county have treated about 1,200 patients for COVID-19. Nearly half of them were admitted just in the past few weeks. Jameson told local officials recently that staff can't maintain the current pace.

ANGUS JAMESON: I have every confidence that our hospitals and our health care providers will work until they drop to help keep our community safe. But you should know that the hospitals are stretched and strained, and so are your health care workers.

COLOMBINI: Governor Ron DeSantis is often criticized for his attempts to diminish the severity of the pandemic in Florida. He emphasizes coronavirus patients only make up a fraction of people in most hospitals. But DeSantis is sending thousands of outside nurses to hospitals and nursing homes and told reporters more help is on the way.

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RON DESANTIS: Having this personnel is very important, and so we're supportive of that. I also think the federal government's going to be sending some teams to supplement, and potentially the Department of Veterans Affairs.

COLOMBINI: This will all be a huge help, according to Justin Senior. He's CEO of the Safety Net Hospital Alliance of Florida. Senior says hospitals are adapting their space and workflow, like limiting elective surgeries to accommodate the current rise in patients.

JUSTIN SENIOR: You can declare search capacity. You can create additional capacity, start doubling up rooms. But that's something that you can only do very temporarily or you're just not going to get the quality results that you need.

COLOMBINI: Hospitals in south Florida have started moving beds into unused areas of their facilities as the region becomes the epicenter of the pandemic. Health experts are urging the public to wear masks and social distance to get the numbers down, but nurses are calling on politicians and health care executives to listen to frontline workers and do more to protect them.

For NPR News, I'm Stephanie Colombini in Tampa.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.