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Overwhelmed nurses beg Virginians to get vaccinated against COVID-19

Person with vial and needle
A nurse prepares a does of COVID-19 vaccine at a mass vaccination event in January. (Photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

Editor's note: The following story contains a mention of suicide. If you or someone you know is in crisis, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at  1-800-273-8255 to speak to a certified listener. Veterans and service members can press 1. To connect to someone by text, send HELLO to 741741. It is free, available 24/7, and confidential.

Nurses across the country – and in Virginia – are facing an influx of unvaccinated COVID-19 positive patients. They’re burned out, and are pleading with community members not yet vaccinated to get vaccinated.

In a recent press conference, Aliese Harrison was in tears.

“I had a 40-something-year-old man grip my hand, squeeze it so hard that it hurt, and tell me how afraid he was,” Harrison said, sniffling. “And we were about to intubate him.”

She’s been a critical care nurse for over 20 years. Harrison works at Johnson Memorial Hospital in Abingdon, Virginia, and says never before in her career has she seen so many patients so sick.

“I have not cared for one sick person this sick who has been vaccinated,” Harrison said. “We’re losing more people than saving. What can I do to convince people to wear masks, get vaccinated?”

According to VCU Health, the average daily census of hospitalized COVID-19 patients is now at 66. That’s up from around 43 people hospitalized for COVID-19 at any given time in September of last year. In the last week, 68% of COVID-19 patients admitted to the VCU Medical Center as inpatients were unvaccinated.

“With the prevalence of the Delta variant in our community, combined with high numbers of unvaccinated individuals, we have seen a consistent rise in both hospitalizations and Emergency Department visits related to COVID-19 or COVID-like symptoms,” said Jenna Green, spokesperson for Bon Secours.

Dexter McDowell, patient care director of a COVID-19 unit with the Virginia Hospital Center in Arlington, Virginia, said he and his staff have stayed late at work just because he didn’t want patients on their four-bed critical care unit to die alone.

“So imagine the toll that plays on a nurse,” McDowell said. “Four rounds of post-mortem care, four families no longer able to see their loved ones. And then four virtual funerals with the loved ones who weren’t able to say goodbye physically to a family member.”

McDowell says sometimes he feels guilty for just going to his office and closing the door to finish up an administrative task to keep the unit running.

“Because they're working with higher ratios. Right now, the acuity is higher. It’s tough on them [nurses]. With the mounting pressure and less staff, there’s more demand and emotional burnout. I feel like we're getting to a level of urgency where we can't meet the needs of our community without their help,” McDowell said. “We just respectfully ask that our community either get vaccinated or at the very least wear masks to help us tackle this virus.”

The recent surge in COVID-19 positive unvaccinated patients has negatively affected the mental health of some nurses. President of the Virginia Nurses Association Linda Shepherd said the pressure has led to the loss of life by suicide in some cases.

“Within our own system, we have had suicides of nurses and other health care professionals. We have also had nurses that have said over the past six months that they have lost tremendous amounts of weight, being unable to really focus and being able to get themselves in a place where they're emotionally settled,” Shepherd said. “They've just kind of stopped eating.”

“This pandemic has me crying before I walk through the doors, and I don't know what to do anymore,” said Mesha Jones, a Charlottesville-area nurse and board member of the Virginia Nurses Association.  "I can't sleep, I can't eat, I can't talk about it. I'm afraid.”

Jones says over the past 18 months, she’s been talking to her family through the door for fear of infecting her kids with COVID-19.

“We can’t keep doing this,” Jones said. “We've been the frontline of this pandemic for the last 18 months and what we're asking the community to do now is for you to be the frontline for you to take care of us.”

Gov. Ralph Northam had strong words for unvaccinated individuals in a press conference earlier this week.

“Think about what you want your obituary to read, because you’re taking a foolish, dangerous chance, and it affects many more people than just you,” Northam said.

When asked if  Northam plans to call on the Virginia National Guard to help fill nursing shortages and relieve unvaccinated nursing staff as New York is doing, Alena Yarmosky, senior communications advisor, said, “We are exploring a range of options to boost vaccinations among Virginians and support health care staff.”

Virginians can get more information on COVID-19 vaccines and view available appointments near them at or by calling (877) VAX-IN-VA.

Megan Pauly covers education and health care issues in the greater Richmond region.