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Biden aims to help hospitals by sending military doctors and nurses to help

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

In response to the rapid spread of the omicron variant, President Biden is promising to send in federal reinforcements to support overwhelmed hospitals.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: Our doctors, nurses, hospital staffs have gone above and beyond during this pandemic. The strain and stress is real. I really mean it. It's real. And we'll have their backs, though. We have to let them know we have their backs.

BLOCK: The president says military doctors and nurses will be deployed. Even before Biden spoke yesterday, officials in Rhode Island had asked the federal government for help. That's because hospital staffing shortages are already at crisis levels there. Dr. Laura Forman is chief of emergency medicine at Kent Hospital in Warwick, R.I., and she's with us this morning.

Dr. Forman, you spoke with MORNING EDITION almost exactly this time a year ago. You were running a field hospital outside Providence then. What is the situation now for you in the hospital?

LAURA FORMAN: Good morning, Melissa.

The situation right now in the hospital is worse than I've seen it in the last two years. The onslaught of patients with COVID right now is unlike anything I've seen. It's relentless. At this point, I'm surprised if a patient tests negative for it. Even patients who are coming in after car accidents or with ankle sprains are testing positive. The community spread here is nothing short of wildfire at this point. And it's overwhelming the hospital. We are routinely running out of beds. We're running out of IV pumps. We're running out of pillows. In 20 years in emergency medicine, I've never seen anything like this.

BLOCK: And the folks who are testing positive - overall, what is the vaccination status of them?

FORMAN: About 70% of the people who are really ill with COVID are not vaccinated. About 30% are vaccinated. I will say, I have seen more people die of COVID than I can count. They have all been unvaccinated. I've yet to have someone who's vaccinated die of COVID.

BLOCK: You mentioned all the things that are - that you're running out of. Are you also running out of staff?

FORMAN: We are really stretched thin in terms of staffing. I'm honored to work with some truly incredible, dedicated staff. But it has been so hard just to keep staffing in. This pandemic has really taken a toll on folks. It's taken a toll physically, but it's also taken an incredible emotional toll on people. And it's been hard to keep us staffed.

BLOCK: Yeah. What are they telling you - your colleagues? What are they - how are they expressing that?

FORMAN: There's a lot of PTSD. There's just - there's a lot of strain. There are literally days - many days - when we are trying to find a place to move a patient who has died so that we can make room for a sick patient coming in. And to do that day in and day out is excruciatingly painful. And to know that this could all be prevented if people were willing to get a couple of shots in the arm is demoralizing.

BLOCK: You know, last time I checked, Rhode Island had one of the highest vaccination rates - fully vaccinated rates - in the country - something like 75% fully vaccinated.

FORMAN: Yes.

BLOCK: And yet you're still seeing this. How do you account for that?

FORMAN: It's predominantly unvaccinated or partially vaccinated people that we're seeing. But people who are vaccinated can still get this, and they can still spread it. They're much less likely to get really sick with it. But I think it's really the unvaccinated folks who are filling up our hospitals.

BLOCK: I know when you spoke with the program last year, you talked about a lot of cases where you would have to be FaceTiming family members as their loved one was was dying. Is that still the case, or are people allowed to be with their family members if they're in the hospital?

FORMAN: We are allowing people to come in at the end of life. But there still are a lot of people who are alone in the hospital before they die because we just can't safely let visitors in all of the time.

BLOCK: Does - do the comments from President Biden and the promises of help yesterday - do those reassure you in any way?

FORMAN: We are heartened by it. I'm glad that the federal government is doing everything they can. But the reality is that the responsibility for this rests with every single one of us. If everybody would get vaccinated - if everybody vaccinated and unvaccinated would wear a mask, we wouldn't need to be in this. I think the important message is that we don't need to wait for a mandate to put a mask on and do the right thing and keep one another safe.

BLOCK: Yeah. And when you tell that to the patients you're dealing with it, has that gotten through to them?

FORMAN: It hasn't. And it's so discouraging. I don't know how to motivate people to protect one another. You know, I'm - we are all risking our lives every day to take care of people who are unwilling to get a couple of shots to protect all of us.

BLOCK: That is Dr. Laura Forman. She is chief of emergency medicine at Kent Hospital in Warwick, R.I.

Dr. Forman, thanks for all you're doing, and thanks for taking time to talk with us.

FORMAN: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.