RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC)-Nurses from across Virginia delivered a desperate plea to the public on Tuesday as some warn the state is on the verge of a “patient care disaster.”

During a virtual press conference, the Virginia Nurses Association said worsening staff shortages are putting health systems at risk of collapse. 

Meanwhile, the state is reporting its highest COVID-19 hospitalization rate since mid-February, according to data analysts. A recent report also noted that the more than 2,000 patients currently hospitalized with coronavirus statewide represent a nearly 10-fold increase from the number recorded in mid-July.

Virginia Department of Health hospitalization data as of Sept. 21

Various VNA members described feelings of frustration and fatigue on Tuesday. They detailed moments of devastation as they comforted family members and held patient’s hands overnight so “they wouldn’t die alone.”

“On Monday, I had a 40 -something year old man, a big man, hold my hand and squeeze it so hard that it hurt and tell me how afraid he was.” said Aliese Harrison, an RN focused on critical care at Johnston Memorial Hospital.

The latest data shows there are still more than 2,000 hospital beds available statewide but surges are causing near-capacity conditions in Southwest Virginia, where vaccination rates are generally lower.

“The single thing that is in common with all these people is they are not vaccinated,” Harrison said.

VNA President Linda Shepherd said an international nursing shortage that existed before the pandemic is getting more severe, a trend largely being driven by low morale.

“Imagine the worst day you have ever had at work then add human suffering, death, personal risk and repeat it everyday for 18 months. This is what nurses are going through,” said Ashley Apple, a family nurse practitioner at Kidmed Urgent Care who previously worked in Emergency Department at Bon Secours. “We are hemorrhaging nurses from the bedside as a result. If we fail to address the burnout, depression and PTSD among nurses the consequences threaten to destabilize healthcare infrastructure in the commonwealth and the nation.”

Shepherd said shortages are already resulting in acute care bed closures and increasing patient loads.

“Every time I go to work I feel like we’re having to increase ratios just because we don’t have the staff to take care of this patient load and it’s not like we can turn patients away,” said Ashley Fogleman, a registered nurse at Johnston Memorial Hospital. “We’re not able to provide the individualized care that we expect to and strive to do as nurses…I feel like it is mainly just passing medications, making sure these patients aren’t dying and then on to the next one.” 

In addition to decreasing quality of care, Fogleman said shortages are driving long wait times for conditions unrelated to COVID-19. She said patients are visibly frustrated.

“Those double doors open and sometimes it’s like an angry mob,” Fogleman said 

Others described confrontations between patients and staff over mask-wearing rules.

“The civility has somehow gone awry,” said Melody Dickerson, the senior vice president and chief nursing officer at Virginia Hospital Center.

“Nurses feel disrespected by communities who initially hailed them as heroes but now refuse to follow the simple steps that would ease their burden like wearing masks and getting vaccinated,” Shepherd echoed.

Shepherd is concerns more nurses will leave the profession, further widening gaps in care. She cited a recent survey showing 4 in 10 nurses have considered leaving the field as a consequence of the pandemic.

“I’m worried about the generations after me who are going to lose their love of nursing,” said Sheri Harsanyi, an assistant patient care director in the main ICU at Virginia Hospital Center.

Nurses are begging the public to relieve the burden on hospitals by wearing a mask and getting vaccinated.

“What we’re asking the community to do now is for you to be the front-line. For you to take care of us.” said Mesha Jones, president of the Piedmont VNA chapter and a practicing nurse.