INSIDE THE ICU: COVID cases increasing daily, ICU becoming full at Millard Fillmore Suburban

Posted at 4:00 PM, Dec 09, 2020

WILLIAMSVILLE, N.Y. (WKBW) — The number of COVID-19 cases-- in Erie County and beyond-- have reached very critical levels. We're seeing the immediate impact on hospitals with admissions rising and a full ICU.

Nurses are totally at their limit.

For the third time in eight months, the 7 Eyewitness News I-Team went back inside the ICU at Millard Fillmore Suburban Hospital, for a look at the extreme realities of this latest COVID surge.

It's all hands on deck, inside the ICU at Millard Fillmore.

"It's rough," nurse Julie Grimm said.

"Our COVID cases are increasing daily. Our ICU is becoming full," said Lindsey Acevedo. She's the charge nurse on the floor.

"It's scarier this time," nurse Kelly Francis said.

These three nurses are each caring for critically ill COVID patients.

"When our patients come to us, it's... I don't know how to say this... the last resort," Francis said. "We don't see a lot of them actually leave the ICU when they come here."

Once again, there is white tape forming an 'X' on the windows of patient rooms. This marks patients who have tested positive for COVID-19.

Last Wednesday, there were 11 patients in the ICU who were COVID positive. Half of those patients, we're told, were on ventilators. Empty beds aren't empty for long. Dozens more COVID positive patients are being treated on other floors of the hospital. The most seriously ill come down to the ICU.

As of Monday, Millard Fillmore Suburban had 100 COVID positive patients in house. The vast majority of them, 85 total, are in the regular medical unit. A total of 15 COVID positive patients were in the ICU. That's up from when we visited last week.

Kaleida Health sends out systemwide updates.

"We have less people in critical care situations, but they're still very sick and suffering and having a very hard time," Grimm said.

We met Grimm back in April during our first visit to the ICU. At that point, it was controlled chaos.

"Nothing like this was ever in our imagination," Grimm said then.

Eight months later, during this second surge, Grimm says nurses are exhausted, overworked and overloaded.

"It's nerve wracking that you're going to make the wrong decision or someone isn't going to get the time they need," Grimm said.

As the number of COVID admissions to the hospital-- let alone the ICU-- goes up on a daily basis, the number of nurses getting sick is also rising.

"It's putting a strain on our abilities," Acevedo said. "We've got three people out for two weeks, that makes a difference."

Between the time we saw Acevedo in August-- during our second visit to the ICU-- and now, she was diagnosed with COVID and also had to be out of work.

"I can empathize with the patients with what they're going through and what they feel," Acevedo said. "But the interesting thing with this virus is, I can speak with another person and their symptoms may have been completely different."

She says the patients are also different. They're now healthier, middle-aged adults. Acevedo said she recently had to put a 42-year-old man on a ventilator.

"It's not something you want to see and it's emotional," she said. "If we lose control, that's not going to help them. We die inside, but we continue on and do the work."

Those emotions are hard for people on the outside to understand. That's why these nurses rely on the team around them to cope.

In Acevedo's case, not only does she have other nurses, but she also has Francis, who is her sister.

"I have her to talk to," Francis said. "You have to have a support person to bounce things off of and talk to and we're all really good about that with each other."

Francis said she hasn't had a non-COVID assignment in three months.

Together, she and Acevedo had to prone a patient. That means they rolled that person onto their stomach as part of a treatment plan.

COVID patients stay on their stomachs for 16 hours at a time. It helps them breathe better. This is a last ditch effort before they go on a ventilator.

Proning, however, only perpetuates the problem for these nurses.

"When these people are so sick and you're proning them, it is physically daunting on your body," Acevedo said. "You leave and your neck hurts. And your arms hurt. And your back hurts. And you go home and crash because you know you have to do it all over the next day."

Francis told the I-Team the COVID crisis is not heading "somewhere good."

"We need people to know this is serious," Francis said. "I know there's a lot of people who think this is all a media thing, it's politicians and stuff. It's real. It's out there and it's bad."

These nurses each separately said the community needs to be more responsible. No one wants to head into a shutdown, but they're fearful that's where we may be heading.

They say we should stop making unnecessary trips, wash your hands often and continue wearing your mask for awhile longer.

Kaleida Health is using a new test in the Emergency Room, testing patients for Influenza-A, Influenza-B, RSV and COVID. That's helping with a quick diagnoses and conserving personal protective equipment.

As for PPE, these nurses said they've got what they need.

When it comes to the COVID vaccination, healthcare workers will be among the first to get the shot. Acevedo says, nurses are split 50/50 about getting the vaccine when it's available.