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How an ER doctor braces herself for working on Christmas as COVID cases spike


It's Christmas Day. And while the holiday is marked by cheer and time with family, this year we are also witnessing a troubling rise in coronavirus cases. The surge is being propelled by the omicron variant, which now accounts for a majority of new U.S. cases. The rapid pace of the spread has upended the holidays, resulting in long lines at testing centers, thousands of canceled flights and, for many, a rather anxious holiday season. And for the doctors, nurses and other medical staff working today, Christmas this year looks similar to last year, when a winter surge overwhelmed hospitals across the country.

This year, in Colorado, both the surge in cases and a shortage of nurses have strained hospitals for weeks. And that means many medical professionals will spend Christmas night in overcrowded and understaffed emergency rooms. To learn what Christmas is like from inside one of those hospitals, we called Dr. Morgan Eutermoser. She's an emergency room doctor in Denver.

Dr. Eutermoser, thank you so much for joining us, and merry Christmas.

MORGAN EUTERMOSER: Merry Christmas to you, too.

NADWORNY: So we know Colorado is seeing an uptick in cases. Tell us how that's impacting your hospital. What have you been seeing in recent days?

EUTERMOSER: Yeah. So we've been seeing increasing cases, mainly among - at least for the hospitalized cases, it's the unvaccinated. The vaccinated cases - we are seeing a lot more of them because of the new variant, but most of these patients are able to go home. But we are seeing these unvaccinated cases that are getting sicker and that are requiring more hospital resources. And with that, with, you know, the virus count going up and with nursing shortages, we're just seeing overall significant decrease in resources that we have for the hospital.

NADWORNY: So there is data that suggests that omicron, while highly contagious, is less likely to land people in the hospital. But from what you're describing - I mean, it sounds like hospitals are still really struggling. Can you give us a sense of the kinds of patients you're seeing in the hospital? Who is getting really sick, and what does that look like right now?

EUTERMOSER: Yeah, you're correct. So omicron, from what we can tell, is a lot more infectious. However, it does not make people as sick as the prior variant. But we still are seeing a subset of patients that are coming in, and they are hypoxic, so they're low on oxygen. And what we're seeing - and this is anecdotal, but this is what we're seeing in the hospitals around Denver - is that patients are coming in and getting - and they're not getting put on ventilators and being on ventilators for a long time. They're just not able to oxygenate at all. And we've had higher - I would say higher unexpected death rates, at least anecdotally for me.

We have patients who we are sending home on oxygen now, so instead of keeping in the hospital - so you might see our hospitalization rates of being somewhere that you're like, oh, that's not totally impressive - right? - not a high level for hospitalizations for COVID. But we have a program - at least our hospital, Denver Health - where we are sending patients home who have an oxygen requirement between 1 to 4 liters, and we're sending those home. We would have never sent those home in the past. But we're sending them home and having a nurse and a doctor call them every day, and we're trying to hydrate their oxygen at home. When we bring them back in, if we think that they're not doing as well - but a lot of these patients, it's mainly reassurance and telling them that they're going to be OK, it's not going to feel good and trying to keep them healthy at home.

NADWORNY: Yeah. I imagine working on Christmas in general - you know, it can be difficult, especially right now with highly contagious virus, of course, the reality you may have fatalities or really difficult cases today. I wonder how you mentally prepare yourself for, like, a shift today.

EUTERMOSER: Yeah, that's a great question. So I've worked Christmas Eve, Christmas Day since 2008, so it's - I'm getting used to it. There's a case that sticks with you typically because there's a case - there's a lot of cases that stick with me in general from working in an ER, but the ones that happen on Christmas, when they're a bad case, they stick with you just a bit more. How I prepare for that is knowing already going in that there's going to be possibly a bad case. But again, I've done this for a while now, and I'm getting more used to it. I don't want to say that we're kind of jaded doctors, but we - and jaded team - but, I mean, that is something that we understand going into these shifts.

But they're hard shifts - I sign up for them every year because I do like them. I like being there. I mean, that's part of being in an emergency department, is we like to be there. Like, we went into this to help people on their worst day. And I cannot think about a worse day of having a tragedy that occurs on a holiday. And Christmas is one of those that - it's one of those holidays - it's just one of those bad days to have anything bad happen and have that memory stick with you. So, I mean, this is why we went into it. And so I actually think of this more of a privilege to be able to work on this day and take care of people.

NADWORNY: That was Dr. Morgan Eutermoser, an emergency room doctor in Denver, Colo. Dr. Eutermoser, thank you so much for your time, and merry Christmas.

EUTERMOSER: Thank you for having me. Merry Christmas. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Elissa Nadworny reports on all things college for NPR, following big stories like unprecedented enrollment declines, college affordability, the student debt crisis and workforce training. During the 2020-2021 academic year, she traveled to dozens of campuses to document what it was like to reopen during the coronavirus pandemic. Her work has won several awards including a 2020 Gracie Award for a story about student parents in college, a 2018 James Beard Award for a story about the Chinese-American population in the Mississippi Delta and a 2017 Edward R. Murrow Award for excellence in innovation.