Once practically empty, ERs struggle with a surge of pent-up sickness : Shots - Health News Patients who couldn't see a doctor earlier in the pandemic or were too afraid to go to a hospital have finally become too sick to stay away. Many ERs now struggle to cope with an onslaught of need.

ERs are now swamped with seriously ill patients — but many don't even have COVID

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Early in the pandemic, people tried to avoid the hospital at all costs. And emergency rooms were often eerily empty. But now, in many parts of the country, they're too full. All those months of putting off care or just not being able to access it means people are now crowding into ERs.

Michigan Radio's Kate Wells went inside one ER in Lansing, where staff members are struggling to care for patients who are showing up much sicker than they've ever seen.

KATE WELLS, BYLINE: Nurse Tiffani Dusang is practically vibrating with frustration. She is looking at all of the patients who are lying here on these stretchers, one after the other, lining the beige hospital hallways. There's just too many of them.

TIFFANI DUSANG: It's hard. It's hard to watch. I always feel very, very bad when I walk down the hallway and see that people are in pain or needing to sleep or needing quiet, but they have to be in the hallway with, as you can see, 10 or 15 people walking by every minute.

WELLS: Dusang is the director of emergency and forensic nursing here at Sparrow Hospital in Lansing, Mich. And these are mostly not COVID patients. These are people with chronic heart conditions, serious lung problems, stomach pain, people feeling suicidal - all of it hitting the ER at once. So to cope, the staff have put some patients in brown reclining chairs along the wall. Many of these patients are hooked up to IVs. And these are the patients who are too sick to stay in the main waiting room, but they're not sick enough to actually get a stretcher, much less an actual room.

A nurse just gave Alejoz Perrientoz a full physical exam right out here in the hall.

ALEJOZ PERRIENTOZ: I felt a little uncomfortable, but I, like, have, like, no choice. You know, I'm in the hallway. There's no rooms. We could have done the physical in the parking lot or something, you know.

WELLS: Meanwhile, 70 to 100 ambulances are pulling into Sparrow every day.

DUSANG: It's a lot. It's the highest I've ever seen in my career.

WELLS: This is not just here at Sparrow. The same thing is happening all over the country. Nationally, the number of ER visits has returned to normal pre-pandemic levels. But because people are much sicker now, the number of ER patients who need to be admitted for further care is up nearly 20% across the country. But the beds upstairs are full, too. So people end up getting warehoused in the ER for days.

And the staff are burned out. Every week somebody quits.

KELLY SPITZ: I have thought about leaving. It has crossed my mind several times.

WELLS: This is Kelly Spitz. She has been a nurse here for 10 years

SPITZ: And I continue to come back because I have a team here and I love what I do. So at the end of the day, that's why I'm here. Sorry.

WELLS: Spitz tells me this story about a patient of hers. The guy came into the ER recently, and he was diagnosed with terminal cancer. If he stayed in the hospital, Spitz knew he was going to die here, and he was going to be almost entirely alone with just one visitor allowed. So she spent all day on the phone, calling case managers, getting hospice set up for him at his home. She was even willing to drive him home in her own car. Finally, they get him home. And he was able to die three days later, surrounded by his family. The family called her. They thanked her. And she thinks about this guy all of the time because that is the care that she wants to be giving all her patients. And she can't. There are too many of them.

SPITZ: I hope it gets better. I really do. I hope it gets better. I hope it gets better soon.


WELLS: Out in the hallway, though, things are not better. One woman lays on a stretcher in the hall. She's partially naked. She's got a sheet barely covering her. There are these open sores on her bare legs.

DUSANG: Diabetes?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Probably, yeah.

WELLS: But Dusang has a new crisis - they don't have enough nurses for the overnight shift.

DUSANG: Why can't we see if we can get two inpatient nurses?

TROY LATUNSKI: Already tried.

WELLS: If they cannot get more staff, it is going to be hard to care for new patients who come in overnight from car crashes or seizures or other emergencies.

LATUNSKI: So if I go home now till 10, get back here at 11, then I can keep it running.

WELLS: This is Troy Latunski. He's a nurse here. And what he's telling Dusang is he just worked the day shift. But he's going to go home, get a little bit of sleep, come back tonight, work the night shift and essentially may end the ER's temporary overflow unit alone - just him caring for eight patients. But right now, that is their best option.

So Dusang takes a deep breath. She smiles gratefully at Latunski - says he's a hero.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: We've got a COVID in 1. We've got a COVID rule-out in 2.


WELLS: And then she's on to the next crisis.

DUSANG: OK, so how long do you think? Can we just tell her?

WELLS: For NPR News, I'm Kate Wells in Lansing, Mich.

MCCAMMON: This story comes from NPR's partnership with Michigan Radio and Kaiser Health News.


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