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Maui hospital workers plead with community to stem COVID-19 surge

Staff overworked, await FEMA reinforcements due next week

Maui County Mayor Michael Victorino (far right) and Hawaii Lt. Gov. Josh Green (center) visit the Maui Memorial Medical Center prepping room where staffers load syringes with vaccine in January. Exhausted hospital workers are pleading with community members to help stem the tide of COVID-19 cases. The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

A nurse who works on a COVID-19 unit at Maui’s only acute-care hospital said she’s not asking for people to help reduce virus spread — she’s begging.

“I think I’m also speaking for my fellow workers — we beg you guys, we beg the community, to take action, take action with us,” said Caroline Gibson, a Maui Health floor nurse who also works as a charge nurse for the COVID-19 unit at Maui Memorial Medical Center. “We don’t want to just ask — we would like to beg all of them — to please help us.”

Gibson’s plea comes days after COVID-19 patients at Maui Memorial hit a record high, with 40 being treated on Sunday, surpassing the previous single-day record of 31 on Aug. 28, 2020. Meanwhile, overworked, reduced local hospital staff are awaiting Federal Emergency Management Agency nurse reinforcements, slated to arrive Monday.

Anna Eckart-Dodd, Hawaii Permanente Medical Group internal medicine doctor who works at the hospital, made her own requests Tuesday.

The doctor asked people to mull cutting back activities that are not essential, adding that her family is taking a two- to three-week self-imposed quarantine.

“Please consider making every effort to stay healthy (sleep, eat well, exercise),” Eckart-Dodd said. “Please consider cessation of activities that might cause traumatic injury. I know it’s a bitter pill to swallow when the visitors are here having the time of their lives. I know it’s painful but I cannot think of another way to stem the tide.”

Phil Velasco, a nurse case manager who also does bedside care at the hospital, said he wants people to understand that COVID-19 admissions are largely preventable.

“We’re all tired,” he said Tuesday. “People are coming in sicker; their acuity levels are higher. And a lot of this is unnecessary.”

Hospitals around the state are buckling under the weight of the second surge of COVID-19 cases, driven by the aggressive delta variant. Staff shortages and exhaustion are taking a toll, and FEMA health care workers are arriving around Hawaii as reinforcements.

Maui Health CEO Mike Rembis on Tuesday said that with the help of the mayor and the governor, the hospital will receive FEMA aid, with 20 new nurses coming Monday and another 20 coming the following week.

Velasco, co-chairman of the United Nurses Associations of California/Union of Health Care Professionals’ Hawaii Chapter, said health care workers are feeling a mix of “fatigue” and “frustration” at this stage of the pandemic.

Initially, the first wave of COVID-19 caught people off guard and no vaccine existed at the time.

Now, the vast majority of hospital cases are among unvaccinated people while the vaccine has been politicized, he said. But for those who work at Maui Memorial, people — not politics — are the focus.

“All we see is the people, the people within our community, friends, family coming in,” he said. “All we want them to understand is please, this is real — this isn’t some CNN news report or Fox News report. This is real — it’s affecting us within the community, and if you think it’s not going affect you, that’s very wrong.”

Gibson also urged vaccination and encouraged people to get vaccine information from credible sources, as opposed to social media.

Regardless of the vaccine, though, if community members go “back to the basics,” it will help health care workers who are struggling to stay afloat in their jobs.

“Before even speaking about the vaccine, let’s wear masks, let’s avoid large gatherings again,” Gibson said. “You can help us very, very, very much, but at the same time, you can help you and your family and your children. Please help us by going back to the basics.”

* Kehaulani Cerizo can be reached at kcerizo@mauinews.com.

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