As COVID-19 hospitalizations rise in Iowa, nurses remain the health care workers who are vital to caring for the sickest patients.

A year and a half into the pandemic, many of those nurses are at risk of burning out. Bridget Otto, a nurse in the Medical Intensive Care Unit at the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics, says she dreads watching her hospital’s COVID unit fill up again.

“The last shift that I was there, we lost several people that were very young,” Otto says. “There were multiple times on our shifts that we just bawled. We just gave each other a hug and cried.” Otto says the pandemic has strained her love of the profession and she’s decided to go back to school this fall to pursue a degree as a family nurse practitioner.

Lisa Caffery, president of the Iowa Nurses Association, says nurses are used to seeing death but not in the numbers they’ve seen during this pandemic. “It’d be like walking into a mass casualty event every day and that’s kind of what it’s like,” Caffery says. “That’s a difficult thing to sustain over a long period of time.”

Caffery says she’s heard of many Iowa bedside nurses quitting or retiring early in the last year. She says that’s pushed some of those remaining to work extra 12-hour shifts amid the waves of sick patients. “Normally, you only do that three days a week,” Caffery says. “Well, they’re doing that seven days a week in some situations, and they’re just simply exhausted.”

Even before the pandemic, nurses nationwide were in short supply, and Iowa has one of the lowest average rates of pay for RNs in the country. Kylie Olson graduated from nursing school last summer and got her first job working in the COVID unit at the Pella Regional Health Center. Olson calls it “baptism by fire.”

“It was one of those things where I felt like I wasn’t necessarily the most qualified person to be able to take care of these patients who were really, really sick,” Olson says, “but there was no one else there who could do it.” Olson says if she hadn’t been transferred to the hospital’s labor and delivery unit in February, she may have quit nursing.

While applications to nursing programs have increased during the pandemic, retaining new nurses past their first year can be tough. According to one report, nearly a quarter of all new RNs leave within a year.

(By Natalie Krebs, Iowa Public Radio)