Sept. 20, 2021 -- Critical care nurse Beth Wathen has been looking after seriously ill patients for 35 years. But nothing could have prepared her for the last 18 months.

Wathen, who works in the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit at Children’s Hospital Colorado, said it is impossible to describe the overwhelming death and despair she has seen since COVID-19 began to fill hospitals to the brim.

"It is hard to know just how devastating this pandemic has been if you're not in the ICU,” she says. “Seeing these poor patients dying without family at their bedside. Watching people say goodbye to spouses FaceTime.”

“This entire pandemic has been heartbreaking.”

The pandemic is taking even more of a toll on nurses than many realize. In a new survey, the American Association of Critical-Care Nurses found that out of 6,000 critical care nurses surveyed, 66% have considered leaving their jobs because of the pandemic.

Sixty-seven percent are afraid of putting their family’s health at risk, and 92% believe the pandemic will shorten nurses’ careers. Of those surveyed, 76% believe patients who are unvaccinated undermine nurses’ physical and mental well-being.

"We know that nurses are leaving in record numbers now, but I was very troubled by these numbers,” Wathen says. “They should be concerning to everyone.”

The extent to which health care workers are suffering amid the pandemic has been highlighted by other research as well. A May study published in the journal EClinicalMedicine, for example, found that out of nearly 21,000 U.S. health care workers surveyed, 61% had significant fear of exposing themselves or their families to COVID-19.

Half the workers suffered from burnout, and 38% said they were dealing with anxiety or depression.

Nurses have always been a vulnerable group, long before COVID-19 filled the hospitals. One study found that, according to data from 2007 to 2018, women nurses in particular were at twice the risk of dying by suicide as women outside of health care.

“Nurses are feeling like we're at our breaking point. But I am surprised by how large and overwhelming the numbers are,” says Amanda Bettencourt, PhD, president-elect of the association. “I’ve never seen this number of nurses considering leaving our profession. This was the stress test for an already stressed system.”

Bettencourt, an assistant professor in the Department of Family and Community Health at the University of Pennsylvania School of Nursing, says nurses have confided in her about wanting to leave the field.

“What breaks my heart as a nurse is the people I know [who] have quit or are thinking about quitting are people I look up to,” she says. “They are the nurses I want to take care of me and my loved ones.”

The emergence of the highly transmissible Delta variant has been particularly hard, she said, because so many of the deaths and hospitalizations are preventable. Even though there are three effective vaccines, there are still people who will not get immunized.

Both Wathen and Bettencourt want the survey results to send a clear message: Nurses need you to help -- by getting vaccinated.

They encourage anyone who has questions or concerns about the vaccine to contact their health care provider.

“It's up to all of us to end this pandemic, and our individual actions can save lives and help ensure the stability of our health care system,” Wathen says. “The people leaving aren't leaving because they don't love what they do. Our nurses, our front-line health care workers, need our support right now.”

Show Sources

The Lancet, EClinicalMedicine: “Prevalence and correlates of stress and burnout among U.S. healthcare workers during the COVID-19 pandemic: A national cross-sectional survey study.”

JAMA Network Psychiatry: “Association of US Nurse and Physician Occupation With Risk of Suicide.”

Survey, Association of Critical Care Nurses.

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