Tired hospital staff must balance when to pick up extra shifts v. when to stay home

Written by Danielle Chiriguayo, produced by Robin Estrin and Brian Hardzinski​

“There's a lot of angst in that ‘oh my goodness, I cannot believe we are doing this again,’” says Elizabeth Chow, the executive director of critical care services at Providence Holy Cross Medical Center, about the latest COVID surge. Photo by Shutterstock.

California is on track to break the hospitalization record from last winter’s deadly COVID-19 surge. In Los Angeles, more than 4,000 people are hospitalized, and although most are being treated for other issues, the influx is straining hospitals that are already short-staffed. Some hospitals have canceled elective surgeries, including Providence Holy Cross Medical Center in the San Fernando Valley.  

The hospital is at capacity and has been forced to open units that don’t typically house inpatients, says Elizabeth Chow, the executive director of Providence’s critical care services. Nearly a quarter of staff members are experiencing COVID symptoms and staying home. It’s pushed their coworkers to pick up extra shifts, which is draining.  

“There's a lot of angst in that ‘oh my goodness, I cannot believe we are doing this again,’” she tells KCRW. “It's daunting. People are tired at the end of the shift. They're really tired, and it's a balance of picking up extra when you can, and knowing when you're just too tired and need to just stay home for a day.”

Despite California’s new rules that allow for hospital staff to return to work after five days of isolation if they aren’t symptomatic but remain positive for the virus, Chow says Providence has decided to allow for the original 10-day isolation period. In the case of a critical staff shortage, she notes they might reconsider the decision. However, if that day were to come, Chow adds that COVID-positive staff would be placed in units with COVID patients. 

“We would never place them in an oncology unit. So I think a lot of thought would go into their assignments. We would never put them with immunosuppressed people, but it is intimidating,” she explains. “We don't want other caregivers to get sick and go out. We want to keep everyone as healthy as we can.”

Although elective procedures, such as knee replacement and gallbladder surgeries, have been canceled, Chow assures that the hospital is still able to care for those who are in immense need. 

Having compassion for unvaccinated patients

Chow says that although she wishes patients would be vaccinated — leading to less hospitalizations and risk for others — she feels compassion for those treated at Providence. 

“We take care of them so closely. They stay in our hospital, some of them for a very long time, we get to know their families, and our hearts go out to them. They still are people and we still do care.”

But she notes she wishes more people did get their COVID shots. 

“By not getting vaccinated, they've increased the chance that they'll be sick in the hospital. They'll negatively impact their loved ones. And they increased our workload, and our workload is just really more than we can take at this point. That is something I think people aren't necessarily considering when they get sick: They're not just affecting themselves, they're affecting other people, including people in hospitals who have to care for them.”

She adds, “We were all looking forward to just wrapping up 2021 and moving on to 2022 and putting COVID behind us. And here we are in January 2022. And we only have about 50% of the COVID patients we had last year at this time, but it is really distressing to be going through this again.”



  • Elizabeth Chow - Executive director, Critical Care Services, Providence Holy Cross Medical Center