UNC Health nursing director working in ICU with COVID-19 patients says seeing people not taking precautions is 'frustrating'

Thursday, December 10, 2020
UNC nursing director working in ICU during COVID-19: 'It never stops'
Intensive units across the state, including UNC Health, are feeling the strain of staffing as the number of COVID-19 cases begins to outnumber available nurses.

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. (WTVD) -- Nurses on the frontlines of the pandemic tell Eyewitness News they are exhausted, as many health officials fear that North Carolina could run out of hospital beds for COVID-19 patients.

"It is very emotional for me. Every day... it never stops," said Eric Wolak, a nursing director in UNC Health's intensive care unit.

As of Wednesday, Wolak has roughly 50 nurses treating 40 patients who are sick from the deadly virus. He says their work is exhausting, "When I have a COVID nurse who is fully donned on PPE for hours and hours taking care of a sick patient that is taxing both mentally and physically."

With the impact of Thanksgiving celebrations and Christmas and New Year's right around the corner, he fears the worse.

He finds it infuriating to see people ignoring measures put in place to protect them.

Wolak continues, "It is frustrating for me when I see people in the community ignoring basic measures and putting themselves and others at risk and getting COVID, which translates to a higher volume, which means we are going to be asking more of our staff and expanding our COVID beds. It's very frustrating."

UNC Health is feeling the strain of COVID-19, as the number of cases and people in intensive care rise.

UNC Health prepared for the winter surge over the summer by hiring graduating seniors and traveling nurses. The hospital also trained medical staff in ICU Care.

The extra staff has been critical in replacing nurses forced to quarantine, after catching COVID-19 or being exposed to someone who tested positive in the community.

Gatherings like the Christmas Parade in Youngsville last weekend raised concerns among health leaders. Some feared it may be a super spreader.

"I'm not extremely concerned about it," 24-year-old Aaron Gillingham told ABC11 last Saturday; he was among several visitors that refused to wear a mask at the parade. "I do not live with any elderly people but coronavirus is not deadly to younger people for the most part," Gillingham said.

Franklin County Health Director Scott LaVigne spoke Friday after an emergency meeting held as a last ditch effort to stop the parade.

But Wolak strongly disagrees with Gillingham's logic and says it is potentially harmful to slowing the spread.

"I have seen very sick 20-year-olds with this virus, so that is not true and I would say even if he or she is right, and they don't get sick, but let's say they pass it on to someone who does get sick and maybe end up not surviving, you're disregarding your fellow citizens and that is the most frustrating thing for me," Wolak said.

Health leaders are urging people to follow the three Ws by wearing their masks, washing their hands and social distancing to not overwhelm hospitals.

While not mandatory, UNC Health is planning to voluntarily vaccinate frontline staff as early as next week, should the Pfizer vaccine be approved.

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