As hospital numbers fall, fatigued staff get relief at last

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FILE - In this Nov. 24, 2020, file photo, registered nurse Chrissie Burkhiser puts on personal protective equipment as she prepares to treat a COVID-19 patient in the in the emergency room at Scotland County Hospital in Memphis, Mo. The U.S. has seen a dramatic turnaround since December and January, when hospitals were teeming with patients after holiday gatherings and pandemic fatigue caused a surge in cases and deaths. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson, File)

MISSION, Kan. – When COVID-19 patients inundated St. Louis hospitals, respiratory therapists arriving for yet another grueling shift with a dwindling supply of ventilators would often glance at their assignments and cry, heading into the locker room to collect themselves.

“They were like, ‘Man, another 12 hours of this slog of these on-the-verge-of-death patients who could go at any moment.' And just knowing that they had to take care of them with that kind of stress in the back of their head,'” recalled Joe Kowalczyk, a respiratory therapist who sometimes works in a supervisory role.

Now the number of people hospitalized with COVID-19 in the U.S. has dropped by 80,000 in six weeks, and 17% of the nation’s adult population has gotten at least one dose of a vaccine, providing some relief to front-line workers like Kowalczyk. On his most recent shift at Mercy Hospital St. Louis, there were only about 20 coronavirus patients, down from as many as 100 at the peak of the winter surge.

“It is so weird to look back on it," he said. “Everyone was hitting their wit's end definitely toward the end just because we had been doing it for so long at the end of year."

The U.S. has seen a dramatic turnaround since December and January, when hospitals were teeming with patients after holiday gatherings and pandemic fatigue caused a surge in cases and deaths. Health officials acknowledge the improvement but point out that hospitalizations are still at about the same level as earlier peaks in April and July and right before the crisis worsened in November. Deaths are still persistently high, though much lower than the peak in early January, when they sometimes exceeded 4,000 per day.

Hospitalizations in Missouri were hovering around 3,000 a day during a stretch from late November into January but have since fallen about 60%. As of Monday, 1,202 people were hospitalized, according to state data.

In Wisconsin, hospitalizations dropped dramatically over the last three and a half months, from a high of 2,277 patients on Nov. 17 to 355 on Wednesday, according to the Wisconsin Hospital Association. And the patients who are hospitalized are not as sick. The number of patients in intensive care has dropped 81% since Nov. 16.

State health officials on Feb. 15 removed all staff from a field hospital set up in October at the state fairgrounds in suburban Milwaukee. They have stopped short of dismantling the facility out of concern that the state could experience a surge in cases sparked by variants of the virus that causes COVID-19.