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'It Just Takes a Hit on the Morale': How a UCSF Respiratory Therapist Takes On the Omicron Surge

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A man wearing glasses and a black zipped sweater that says UCSF on the right side stands with his arms crossed.
Justin Phillips, a respiratory therapist with UCSF at Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital. (Courtesy of Justin Phillips)

As the omicron surge continues, emergency rooms across Bay Area hospitals are strained with an influx of COVID patients and staffing shortages.

“We have this new twist that we haven't seen previously with a lot of health care workers who are out sick,” said Dr. Bob Wachter, chair of the Department of Medicine at UC San Francisco, on The California Report this week. “So at UCSF today [Tuesday], we've got about 70 COVID patients. It's not our peak, but it's a lot. But probably just as importantly, we have hundreds of doctors and nurses who are out.”

Now almost two years into the pandemic, many health care workers are tired. In some cases, they’re dealing with long days as colleagues call in sick. Just in San Francisco, case rates reached record highs, with over 1,200 people a day on average testing positive, according to Dr. Grant Colfax, the city’s public health director.

"From access to testing, to frontline staffing to first responders and hospital staff being out due to infections or exposures, to higher numbers of people in the hospital, we are in the middle of the worst of this omicron surge,” he said during a news conference Tuesday.

So to get a better sense of what’s happening inside hospitals, KQED’s Brian Watt spoke with Justin Phillips, a respiratory therapist with UCSF at Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Brian Watt: What is it like to care for so many COVID patients at today's pace?

Justin Phillips: As someone who's been in health care for quite some time, I think it is quite upsetting because I see people on the spectrum of sickness, from less sick to super sick. You are provided the unique opportunity to talk to people who are very sick, who have lots of worries. And then on the other spectrum, you see the people that are so sick — they're sedated with drugs and on breathing machines — that they can’t talk to you and you essentially see someone who's laying there helpless and you're trying to provide support while answering a lot of unanswered questions.

Are you ever in a situation where you're discussing whether they got vaccinated? How they may have felt about getting vaccinated?

I think because of my unique position as someone who's part of the ICU health care team and being right there, taking care of some of these patients, you are present for some of these uncomfortable conversations or you might overhear a conversation that has to do with vaccination status. And you know, the reality of it is, while you do want to respect people's wishes, you do need to be upfront and let them know this is why they're here, that you've contracted COVID and we're here to take the best care of you possible.

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What do the staffing shortages that we keep hearing about look like inside where you work?

As we go through ebbs and flows of waves and the days get longer for staff members because of staffing shortages, I think it just takes a hit on the morale, really, as people end up getting sick or have high-risk exposure and need to be out of work for long periods of times. Or they need the mental space to be off of work. What it does for the remaining staff members at the bedside, the days get longer. The work seemingly gets harder and we are kind of left in the position where we just have to push on to continue to provide care.

What are you talking about in terms of days getting longer? What's the longest day you've worked and how normal is that?

I have had 16- to 18-hour days. A normal day for us is 12 hours, but I've been there for extended periods of time because I don't want to leave my co-workers in a worse staffing position.

What has been your secret if you haven't gotten COVID yet? Do you feel like there's something you really make sure to do and then clear your mind once you're out of the space of just thinking about COVID?

I don't think I have a secret recipe per se. The biggest thing that I've tried to uphold through the beginning of this and even outside of COVID when it comes to other health care issues is that I try to respect and believe in the science that highly educated people have provided us. So I've followed vaccine mandates and so forth, and as sad as it has been for some individuals during the past, I guess over two years now, I've tried to respect the social distancing and constant masking and really reduce my exposure to people outside of, like, my small circle that I trust. So that has meant smaller Christmases and no big gatherings for me for quite some time and reducing the types of travel — things that I love. But it was really all at the cost of making sure that I'm still healthy. I have a great opportunity of getting sick at work, as I've told many of my co-workers. It would be quite upsetting to … as soon as I walk out of the door and become very lax and get sick.

Your colleagues who do get sick, who do get COVID, do you see them grappling with exactly when they should come back to work?

I don't think anyone who is sick or out waiting for testing necessarily wants to leave their colleagues in a situation where they're stressing about how they can take care of all the patients in the COVID unit, all the patients in the non-COVID units. We have a great dynamic team of health care professionals who are committed to the job that they love to do. So I think most of these individuals are ready to go back to work. They want to go back to work. They want to help out.



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