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'I wasn’t sure there wasn’t any hope in sight': Milwaukee hospital workers reflect on one year since COVID-19 pandemic began

Posted at 10:26 PM, Mar 17, 2021
and last updated 2021-03-17 23:26:07-04

MILWAUKEE — One year ago this week, health workers all over the Milwaukee area were preparing for COVID-19. Many did not know the year ahead would test them like never before.

At Aurora St. Luke's Medical Center in Milwaukee, Chief Medical Officer Dr. Nkem Iroegbu said they had to plan for different ways to deliver care. He said his team started thinking critically about space, staff and supplies.

"Just going back to where we were one year ago, I'm staring into that dark tunnel and not knowing exactly when this was going to be over," Dr. Iroegbu said.

Hospitals all over limited elective surgeries and barred visitors. Beds started filling up, and people hospitalized with the virus struggled to breathe. Some people had to say goodbye to their loved ones through a screen.

"It’s been tough our physicians, our nurses, so many people who work at the bedside have been significantly impacted by this," Dr. Iroegbu said. "And some of it comes from perhaps watching helplessly as people died under your care, because you didn't have anything you could offer, especially early in the pandemic."

Dr. Iroegbu said there's a lot of cautious optimism among his team thanks to the vaccine, but he stresses people must continue to wear masks and social distance.

Many health workers say Wisconsin's darkest days came in the fall, when cases surged statewide.

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"Our beds at one point were almost completely full, and we were holding people in the emergency department waiting for a room upstairs to be cleaned, so we could get them up and get the next person from the waiting room back to provide them care," said Bellin Health emergency medicine Dr. Bradley Burmeister.

"When I look back on it, it was brutal and I wasn’t sure there wasn’t any hope in sight," said Marshfield Medical Center-Beaver Dam's Chief Administrative Officer, Angelia Foster. "There was a health supervisor who said to me, 'Angelia, I have not seen this much death in my entire career.'"

Foster said at one point, 25 percent of her staff was out either sick or quarantining, and she said 249 staff members were re-deployed. She said the U.S. Department of Defense disaster medical assistance teams sent 16 health workers to help in December, when they had more than 900 patients. She said they are also offering staff mental health help with counseling and psychologists.

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"Thank you to our dedicated staff in the Milwaukee Health Department Laboratory for their key role in tackling new challenges in the face of the #Covid19 pandemic. #HonoringMKEHeroes"

"Our staff rose to the occasion day after day after day," Foster said. "We were at one point in time scheduling in 2-hour increments, because we had so many people sick or unavailable to work because of COVID-19 exposure, and yet every time I had an opening that I needed, a staff member would step up and say 'I can do it.'"

Then came good news—the vaccine. Many health workers say they got their first doses around Christmas.

"That was such an exciting day," Dr. Burmeister said.

"I was pretty emotional about it," Foster said. "I didn't think I would be, but it was hope."

As more and more people get their shots, health workers say their hope grows. They say there is also so much more work to do, especially in vulnerable communities.

UW Health public health doctor Dr. Jasmine Zapata grew up in the 53224 zip code in Milwaukee, which is one of the designated areas where anyone 18 and older can get their shot starting Monday.

She said this is a big step towards better health equity.

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FILE - In this Dec. 24, 2020, file photo, healthcare workers wait in line to receive the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine at Seton Medical Center in Daly City, Calif. The rapid expansion of vaccinations to senior citizens across the U.S. has led to bottlenecks, system crashes and hard feelings in many states because of overwhelming demand for the shots. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu, File)

"There’s a lot of issues with racism, discrimination, there are a lot of transportation concerns as well, and just a general distrust of the health system, which in some cases has definitely been warranted just looking at our nation’s treatment of certain communities," Dr. Zapata said.

Still, she said she recognizes that people may not be ready to get the vaccine.

"Even though from a public health standpoint and me being a doctor, I want everyone to go out and get it today, I acknowledge that there are many people who are still making up their minds and that is OK," Dr. Zapata said. "Let's just continue these conversations."

Dr. Zapata said she, her husband and one of her children got COVID-19 around Thanksgiving, and she said she was really scared. She said she has also lost a family member to the virus. Dr. Zapata has since donated plasma to help other patients recover.

"I know how serious this is, and I'm very passionate about getting the word out to everyone in my community, to my hometown, Milwaukee, to where I'm living now, in Madison," Dr. Zapata said. "And just everywhere I can go about the importance of taking every measure I can to fight this horrible pandemic."

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