NEW BEDFORD — Jennifer Sousa, 41, an intensive care unit nurse at St. Luke’s Hospital, remembers watching as the first person in New Bedford died from COVID-19. She recalls the feeling of dread and helplessness as the death toll began to mount.
Just a few months ago, that feeling finally began to subside, she said. As the vaccine rolled out to the public, COVID-19 patients in intensive care gradually dropped to zero by June. Operations returned to normal. It was the first time since the pandemic began that the faint pumping of ventilators was not heard through the halls of their unit.
“We all thought we were seeing a light at the end of the tunnel. That this pandemic was coming to an end,” Sousa said.
But nurses soon realized it was only a brief reprieve. Cases of COVID-19 are rising again, slowly at first, but now described by nurses and other public health officials as a third wave.
New COVID-19 cases in New Bedford, June 21-Sept. 2
By late August, the Department of Public Health was reporting an average of 30.5 positive cases per day in New Bedford, up from an average of 12.2 per day in July and less than five cases per day in June. In late August, at the time of this interview, there were eight COVID-19 patients in intensive care across Southcoast Health hospitals and 33 hospitalized — up from zero in June, according to their spokesperson.
The sound of ventilators, artificially pumping lungs weakened by the virus, has returned to the intensive care unit.
“We thought it was over,” Sousa said. “Now it’s like, here comes the anxiety all over again.”
On a late August afternoon, Sousa was between shifts in the intensive care unit. She sat alongside Maria Tassoni, 62, a nurse manager in the ICU, dressed in full gowns and face shields. Conditions were shifting rapidly, they said. The interview, first scheduled in person, was moved online the day before.
The nurses described feeling overwhelmed and exhausted by the unremitting nature of the pandemic. Patients with COVID-19 remain in critical care for weeks, requiring more time and resources than traditional ICU patients. Sousa has long feared bringing home the virus to her children, who are too young to be vaccinated.
But now Sousa and Tassoni described feeling more than exhausted. They are frustrated, they said. That’s because the death toll they have witnessed in this wave is avoidable.
“It’s frustrating because you know what is going to happen to them,” Tassoni said. “You know it could be prevented with the vaccine.”
The only COVID-19 patients that Sousa and Tassoni have treated in intensive care are unvaccinated.
“I have not had one vaccinated person die in our ICU, or even come into the ICU,” Sousa said. “Seeing people choose not to get vaccinated, it’s frustrating for us. They don’t have to die from it.”
Vaccinations rates in New Bedford remain at roughly 45% percent, according to the state Department of Public Health, much lower than the statewide average of 66%. The patients in the ICU during this wave are much younger than early in the pandemic, they said.
Percentage of residents fully vaccinated
Outside of the hospital, Tassoni said she often hears conversations spreading misinformation about the vaccine. She tries to share her experience of how the vaccine is working and those without it still are falling critically ill. But people opposed to the vaccine are unyielding in their beliefs.
“You just can’t change their mind. It has become very politicized, which it shouldn’t be,” she said. “It has nothing to do with politics.”
Now, Tassoni said, she has witnessed critically ill COVID-19 patients who are pleading for the vaccine. But at that point it’s too late, she said.
Tassoni recalls one patient asking for the vaccine before being intubated for respiratory distress. The patient had told her he hadn’t received the vaccine because he was afraid of side-effects.
“He realized at that moment that the vaccine was the only thing that could possibly help him. But it wasn’t possible at that time,” she said. That patient died of the virus, she said.
The new wave provokes complex emotions for nurses.
They are frustrated that the new COVID-19 victims are not vaccinated. But they are also relieved, they said, that this wave of COVID-19 patients in the ICU, all of whom are unvaccinated, proves that the vaccine is working.
“As frustrating as it is,” Tassoni said, “you feel some kind of relief that it’s not the vaccinated patients. We have all been vaccinated, and we want to know that it will protect us from severe illness.”
Average daily cases per 100,000 residents, Aug. 15-28
With the recent resurgence in cases, nurses have now let go of the illusion that the virus will simply disappear. They believe there is only one path to a post-pandemic future. To them, it’s simple — the vaccine.
“It’s all going to depend on how many people are vaccinated,” Tassoni said. “The more people we have vaccinated, the less cases we are going to see. That is a fact.”
For now, nurses in the intensive care unit are doing all they can do to brace for what they see as a grueling fall and winter ahead. They are preparing beds for more COVID-19 patients and steeling themselves to work overtime hours, once again.
“It’s overwhelming to think about,” Sousa said. “But we’ll get through it. We have gotten through it before. We’ll do what we have to do to get through it again.”
Death certificates obtained by The New Bedford Light show the elderly and younger Black and Hispanic residents have borne the heaviest burden.
An analysis of New Bedford death certificates reveals a surprising cluster of deaths among elderly residents who worked for decades when the textile and apparel industry was at its peak.
Two local families are still coping with lingering ailments and uncertainty months after initial infections.
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