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As COVID patients pack Colorado hospitals, anger grows against the unvaccinated

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Some residents of Colorado cannot get into a hospital when they need to. That's because the hospital beds are filled with people who chose to go unvaccinated during the pandemic. Patients who need care for other issues have no space. They're speaking out now, as are nurses who report a medical system near collapse. Colorado Public Radio's John Daley reports.

JOHN DALEY, BYLINE: Sixty-year-old Harold Burch (ph) lives in rural Delta County, Colo., and battles a cascade of health problems.

HAROLD BURCH: It's been a real rodeo, so to say, I guess, you know? It's been a lot of ups and downs.

DALEY: Burch suffers from osteo- and rheumatoid arthritis and has had two major intestinal surgeries.

BURCH: I can't leave the house. I need to be right near a restroom all the time. I haven't ate anything substantial probably going on three weeks now.

DALEY: Burch had to wait that long to be seen by a primary care doctor, who said...

BURCH: If things were different, I would tell you to go to the hospital and be diagnosed, have some tests run and see what's going on with you. But he says, as of today, Delta County Hospital is clear full. There are no beds available.

DALEY: COVID-19 means most of the region's ICU beds are full. Fewer than 60% of county residents have had one or more shots. Burch is fully vaccinated but wants to avoid the hospital if he can.

BURCH: It's really frustrating because I did the right thing, like so many other people have. And we're being just kind of, like, told, you know, well, unless you have a really serious problem like a heart attack, a stroke, you're going to have a baby or, you know, something like that, you know, we really - we don't have time to mess with you. It's just wrong, John. It's just wrong.

DALEY: Burch's situation is common in Colorado lately, as the state faces its second-worst COVID-19 surge for hospitalizations and deaths. Hospitals are under tremendous strain. And that means delays and changes from normal care as strapped providers do more with less. Seventy-two-year-old retiree Diann Cullen is over it.

DIANN CULLEN: What I said to the doctor was [expletive] idiots who won't get vaccinated.

DALEY: Cullen lives closer to big-city hospitals and had hernia surgery planned. She got frustrated and angry when her doctor told her it would have to be postponed for weeks.

CULLEN: Absolutely. I mean, he flat out told me, we can't even do it because of too many COVID patients.

DALEY: Too many COVID patients and a shortage of staff have pushed hospitals into crisis. Robin Wittenstein is CEO of Denver Health, which runs one of the state's biggest hospital and clinic systems.

ROBIN WITTENSTEIN: They're coming into hospitals now sicker than ever before. And they're coming in larger numbers than we've ever seen before. Our system is on the brink of collapse.

DALEY: Over at the academic medical center UC Health, ICU doctor Abbey Lara says the crush of unvaccinated patients means delays in care or patients don't get much-needed diagnostic tests.

ABBEY LARA: Patients who could've survived something, they had their life cut short because they weren't able to access care.

DALEY: Half the state's hospitals anticipate a staffing shortage in the next week. And when there are too many patients being treated by too few staff, Lara says, that ratchets up the difficulty for providers.

LARA: I just worry that there's going to be not only a lot of turnover in the near future, but I think that access to health care is just going to get even worse in the future.

DALEY: Lara believes the effects of the pandemic will be felt long after it fades.

LARA: I appreciate that you don't want to say the sky is falling. The sky isn't falling. But the sky's going to turn a very different color.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAR HONKING)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: Whoop.

DALEY: Recently, nurses protested the demands they're facing at an event across the street from Longmont United Hospital, north of Denver. They held signs reading patients first in the hospital. Critical care nurse Stephanie Chrisley told a crowd that normally, an RN would care for two ventilated, sedated critical care patients.

STEPHANIE CHRISLEY: In the last few weeks, we have regularly had RNs taking three and sometimes four patients at a time.

(BOOING)

DALEY: That's unsafe, she says. And the nurses are looking to unionize. Longmont United says it is focused on the well-being of patients and staff. And its top priority is high-quality care. Chrisley, a mother of two, says nurses need more hands on deck.

CHRISLEY: And I have lately been in a state of chronic stress over the crushing guilt that I feel to ensure my patients get the care they need, and yet somehow still care for myself and my family.

DALEY: Kris Kloster has been a nurse for 32 years, much of that in the ICU. Since the pandemic hit, she's had to deal with colleagues quitting, restrictions on visitors, worries about catching the virus, coping with suffering and deaths. She says it's been...

KRIS KLOSTER: Soul-sucking. I was like, that is the hardest job. That's the hardest I've ever worked. And this isn't sustainable. This kind of staffing, this kind of stress is not sustainable. Something has to change.

DALEY: The stress is obvious to patients like Rob Blessin (ph) from Fort Collins, who spent 30 days in an ICU with COVID.

ROB BLESSIN: You know, there was just so many people there, you know, and very few staff.

DALEY: Respiratory therapists are in short supply in hospitals. And Blessin says, as more coronavirus patients got admitted, staff struggled to keep up.

BLESSIN: So often, you'd have people from different departments, you know, being trained on the fly. So there's a lot of pressure on people. They're just trying to get more bodies in there.

DALEY: He says he saw doctors and nurses work overtime nine, 10 days in a row, pinch-hitting for each other. He calls them heroic.

BLESSIN: They saved my life. I do feel grateful for everything they did.

DALEY: Blessin says he landed in the hospital because he was swayed by internet misinformation and didn't get vaccinated. It's a decision he came to regret.

BLESSIN: I guess my recommendation is - would be to get vaxxed, you know, even if you're totally against it. And don't fall into the internet hype.

DALEY: He says he's planning to get vaccinated now. And Colorado's hospitalization numbers are starting to trend in a more positive direction. But there are still many places in the country with too few staff to handle the latest surge of patients, nearly all of whom have not taken COVID vaccines.

For NPR News, I'm John Daley in Denver.

(SOUNDBITE OF CANYONS OF STATIC'S "VEIL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.