SoCal hospital reflects on its darkest days during pandemic while looking ahead to herd immunity

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Friday, June 18, 2021
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The reopening of California is having a major impact on local hospitals. But the pandemic isn't over yet, and the next major step is to reach herd immunity.

It's a sign of the grand reopening in California: for the first time in 14 months, Eyewitness News reporters and photographers are allowed to go into a hospital.

During the pandemic's surge, patients had to be alone. Now, friends and family can enter the hospital to visit their loved ones. And for frontline workers, it's a day many truly thought would never come.

Dr. Stephanie Loe is an emergency medicine physician at Riverside University Health System. Looking at how things were during the height of the pandemic, she said, "Every single floor was converted to a COVID floor. And now, our numbers are very small."

It was a pandemic on a level most couldn't imagine.

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"We didn't really understand how massive this was going to be, " said Dr. Bruce Weng, infectious disease specialist with RUHS.

But Dr. Weng says they adapted with each new challenge.

"I don't think at any point, in hindsight, that we ended up overreacting in any way," he said.

At one point in time, hospitals like RUHS with ambulances dozens deep lined up outside the medical center to deliver very ill COVID-19 patients. At its height, more than 300 patients filled every bed.

During the winter surge in November of 2020, Eyewitness News spoke to frontline workers who were under immense pressure, working around the clock in very stressful situations.

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Most were overwhelmed past the point of fatigue.

Leah Patterson is the chief nursing officer for RUHS. She described what life was like at that point in time.

"The critical care units like the ER and the ICU -- those nurses are really suffering. They see death. Nurses tell me that they go home and cry in the shower to release their anxieties and fears," Patterson said at the time.

Lisa Mackie is a nurse who is also the clinical administrator for the emergency department at RUHS. She spoke about the toll it took on everyone, with burnout a major issue.

"There's significant emotional and mental and physical challenges, " Mackie said.

At the height of the surge, Mackie says her staff knew how to protect themselves from infected patients, but now the real threat was coming from outside the hospital.

She says frontline workers were concerned about getting COVID-19 in the community and bringing it back to their colleagues at work.

Mental health professionals did what they could to support their colleagues.

"The wear and tear of having to do that extended effort without a break and without necessarily a clear finish line of sight, that all adds up," said Marcus Cannon, a licensed marriage and family therapist with RUHS.

Dr. Loe was on duty when the first Americans who evacuated from China came from March Air Reserve Base. She says she has come full circle.

"I feel honored to be an emergency room physician, where I could be at the height of the pandemic. I've seen the best and the worst." she said.

Dr. Loe added that there were many lessons to take away.

"We can be prepared for pandemic as we have for one now. And hopefully it shows that we can learn," she said.

So how will things be moving forward? Masking, temperature checks, health screenings -- all of that will continue at hospitals.

Doctors are also focused on getting as many people vaccinated, aiming to reach herd immunity levels all while new variants continue to be on their radar.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said they are now calling the delta variant, first discovered in India, a "variant of concern." Infectious disease experts estimate that at least 10% of infections in the U.S. are caused by the delta variant -- a more than 60% increase in this month alone.

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The priority is vaccination -- which experts say is the best defense against the spread of COVD-19 -- along with finding the best way to reach herd immunity.

There's optimism for today, but no one is taking their eye off the ball.

"If you're only having a small amount of people get vaccinated, that's not much benefit and the variants are allowed an opportunity to spread. "