Overworked and vulnerable nurses, more patients, inadequate space: UCI hospital during COVID surge

Governor Gavin Newsom joined the governors of Washington and Oregon in issuing a travel advisory this morning, urging residents to not to leave the state and to quarantine for two weeks upon return if they do.

California became the second state to surpass a million COVID-19 cases on Thursday. LA County remains the state’s epicenter. Orange County is also seeing more cases, hospitalizations and ICU patients. Nurses are worried that hospitals aren’t prepared, and some at UC Irvine held a protest rally.

Nilu Patel is a certified registered nurse anesthesiologist at UCI. She tells KCRW that COVID-19 cases at her hospital have been increasing daily over the past month and staff are required to get flu vaccinations, but she’s still concerned about what will happen in the coming days.

“My major concerns are staffing … and we're seeing sicker patients,” Patel says. “When you see what's happening in the emergency department, for instance, and there's patients lined up in the hallway and there’s patients outside. There's clearly not enough staff for that.”

She says nurses are overworked. “We've been working at a high stress level since March. Nurses are burnt out. Nurses are getting sick themselves.”

Patel says there’s more personal protective equipment now compared to spring, but nurses don’t regularly get COVID-19 tests at UCI, even if they suspect they’ve been exposed to the virus. Instead, they get tested randomly at UCI, or must do it on their own time.

“There's a fight if we feel as though we've been exposed to either another staff member or a patient. We are unable to get tested if we're not actively showing symptoms,” she says. “We know that asymptomatic spread is an absolute thing and even given that, we're unable to test.”

Patel says that as a nurse anesthesiologist, she could be directly exposed to patients who might have the virus.

“I'm exposed to a person's airway as I'm intubating a patient, either in an emergency situation or for a surgical procedure. I have greater risk. So I have to don extra precautions such as face masks and a [face] shield.”

Meanwhile, she says quarters are cramped, and unmasked nurses must eat in the lounges. “We're asked to maintain safe social distancing. However, there isn't a space for us to do that.”

When it comes to elective surgeries, Patel says UCI is showing no signs of reducing them, and staff are working on a backlog of procedures from past months. In fact, UCI is conducting more surgeries than ever before, she adds.

During her time at the hospital, Patel has not contracted COVID-19. Her husband is also a health care provider, so she says they are concerned about possibly bringing home the virus.

As this flu season continues, Patel says viral testing for COVID-19 and H1N1 take days for a result. That delay worries staff because the two illnesses have similar symptoms.

John Murray, a spokesperson for UCI, said in a statement that the safety of their nurses is the hospital's top priority, and that they follow all guidelines from the Orange County Health Care Agency and the Centers for Disease Control. He said random COVID-19 testing is a University of California systemwide program designed "to examine the prevalence of the virus and the presence of antibodies among asymptomatic health care and university workers. It is not part of, nor does it replace, the UCI Medical Center’s occupational health program." UCI also says that employees with COVID-19 symptoms receive a free test.

— Written by Amy Ta and Danielle Chiriguayo, produced by Angie Perrin



  • Nilu Patel - certified registered nurse anesthesiologist