Across the U.S., coronavirus cases are surging and pushing the health care system to its limits.
Every day since Election Day, more than 100,000 people in the country have tested positive for the virus.
In many places, there aren't enough nurses and doctors to handle the rising caseloads, and staffing agencies are slammed with requests for more.
One person helping meet those requests is Lydia Mobley, an intensive care unit nurse with Fastaff Travel Nursing. After a year of active duty with the U.S. Navy, she returned to nursing and is now on a 10-week contract, working in an ICU unit at a hospital in central Michigan.
Protests roiled Mobley's home state earlier in the pandemic after Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat, issued shutdown orders.
Even now, Mobley says, she sees many people who still don't wear masks. That's particularly hard for her, as a nurse who treats critical COVID-19 patients in the ICU.
She says she encounters "multiple patients" on "every shift" who acknowledge they didn't take the warnings seriously.
"A lot of times before they're intubated — which means put on a ventilator because they can't breathe on their own — when they're still struggling to breathe, and they're saying, 'Well, I didn't know COVID was real, and I wish I'd worn a mask.' And then it's already too late," she tells NPR's All Things Considered. "You can see the regret, as they're struggling to breathe and it's finally hitting them that this is real. It makes me very sad."
In her experience, it has been mostly patients in their 40s and 50s who come to realize they should have done more or taken the coronavirus more seriously.
But she also treats a lot of elderly patients who, she says, were probably infected by relatives. Those families, she says, are now "very remorseful about not doing more to keep their family members safe."
As for advice she has gotten from colleagues who have been treating COVID-19 since the spring, she says they tell her "just survive."
"Unfortunately, we can't give the level of care that we could give when the staffing ratios were better," she says. "A lot of them said we've just been trying to survive, keep the patients alive and keep ourselves alive."
"A lot of them [say] ... don't ever run into a room without your PPE, even if that patient is coding, which is hard because that's your first instinct as a nurse," she says. "But at the end of the day, we still have to protect ourselves."
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Every day since Election Day, over a hundred thousand people in the United States have tested positive for the coronavirus. And it's pushing the health care system to capacity. In many places, there just aren't enough doctors and nurses to handle the surge. In North Dakota, health care workers who have tested positive for the coronavirus are now allowed to keep working if they remain asymptomatic. And everywhere, nursing staffing agencies are slammed with requests from hospitals for more nurses.
That's where people like Lydia Mobley come in. She's an ICU nurse for Fastaff Travel Nursing, and she recently took a new contract at a hospital in central Michigan. She actually left nursing about a year ago but came back because of the pandemic.
LYDIA MOBLEY: I joined the Navy last fall. But once I got out of active duty in October and began reserve life, obviously, there's a huge calling for nurses right now. There's a huge need. And you can't really say no to that right now.
CORNISH: Earlier today, I asked Lydia Mobley about what she was seeing in her home state of Michigan.
When I think of Michigan, this is a state that saw a lot of protests when the shutdown orders came from the Democratic governor. What are you seeing when you're walking in to work, right? I mean, are people wearing masks? Do you see social distancing?
MOBLEY: Definitely, definitely a lot more need for people to do a lot more because no, unfortunately, there's a lot of people that still don't wear masks. It's really hard to watch because at the hospital, a lot of times before they're intubated, which means put on a ventilator because they can't breathe on their own, when they're still struggling to breathe and they're saying, well, I didn't know COVID was real, and I wish I'd worn a mask - and then it's already too late. But it's very sad because it's - you can see the regret, you know, obviously, as they're struggling to breathe and it's finally hitting them that this is real. And it makes me very sad.
CORNISH: How common is that? I mean, how common are - do you encounter patients who didn't take the warning seriously?
MOBLEY: Every shift, multiple patients. Every shift, multiple patients 'cause there's a lot of elderly patients, obviously, although it's not all elderly patients. It's people in their 40s and 50s. And those are the ones I hear the regret from, that maybe they could've done more, or maybe they should've realized it was more serious. But we get a lot of elderly patients who had it probably transmitted from their families. And their families on the phone are very remorseful about not doing more to keep their family members safe.
CORNISH: What advice have you gotten from your colleagues who have been treating this disease since the spring?
MOBLEY: To be very honest with you, just survive. That's what they tell me a lot, like - because unfortunately, we can't give the level of care that we could give when the staffing ratios were better. And a lot of them said, we've just been trying to survive - like, keep the patients alive and keep ourselves alive. A lot of them talk about how - don't ever run into a room without your PPE, even if that patient is coding, which is hard because that's your first instinct as a nurse. But again, at the end of the day, we still have to protect ourselves, even if things are very serious for the patient.
CORNISH: How do your workers - your co-workers seem in terms of burnout?
MOBLEY: Very burned out, very burned out. But I...
CORNISH: What does that look like for folks who don't maybe have nurses in their lives? What does that even mean?
MOBLEY: So burnout for nursing - I'm not sure if you're familiar with compassion fatigue, but it's similar to combat fatigue. That's - there's irritability. Obviously, you're tired. But you're just doing the best that you can. And I think the way we get through it is just together - you know, the camaraderie and having a shoulder to lean on and someone to talk to and just knowing that you're not alone in the situation and that it's a tough time, but we're going to - we're getting through it together, and you're not alone.
CORNISH: Well, Lydia Mobley, thank you so much for speaking with us.
MOBLEY: Thank you so much for having me.
CORNISH: Lydia Mobley, an ICU nurse working at a hospital in central Michigan. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.