POLK COUNTY, Fla. (WFLA) – Health care workers have spent the last 22 months battling COVID-19 and exhaustion is reaching a new level amid staffing challenges.

“We’re stepping up to care for our communities,” Stephanie Anderson, an emergency room nurse at Lakeland Regional Health said.

She works the overnight shift and, she says, takes on several extra shifts each week.

Courtesy – Stephanie Anderson

“Health care doesn’t stop if you get sick. Somebody will have to fill in your shoes. With the high flow, we’ve had some waits in our emergency room,” Anderson said.

She said the ER has seen four or five-hour waits at certain times.

Meanwhile, the actual work has taken its toll.

“I try really hard to compartmentalize everything but the sound of a body bag zipping goes straight through me. I haven’t had a dream that wasn’t about work in two years,” she said.

This comes as health care workers have been out sick due to the highly-transmissible omicron variant of COVID-19.

According to critical care nurse Hershey Pyle, five workers in her unit were out with COVID-19 last week.

Other staff members must take their place.

“Even our younger nurses are like ‘I just can’t keep doing 4, 5, 12-hour shifts in a row. Our home life suffers. You don’t get to see your family. You don’t get to see your friends’,” she said.

Lakeland Regional started the week with 190 of its 6,400 employees out sick with COVID-19, according to Scott Dimmick, Chief Human Resources Officer at Lakeland Regional Health.

“We have been able to fill staffing gaps by offering extra shifts for interested team members and by contracting with staffing agencies. We have not had any widespread changes to patient care related to these shortages, but we are monitoring the availability of team members on a daily basis,” wrote Dimmick in a statement.

Both nurses say the administration at Lakeland Regional Health has worked hard to recruit more nurses.

It is a situation affecting hospitals all over the state.

“Every hospital is struggling with a staffing shortage like they’ve never experienced,” Mary Mayhew, President & CEO of Florida Hospital Association said.

At Lakeland’s Watson Clinic, the employee call-out volume has been “overwhelming.”

“We’re managing but it’s day to day honestly,” Kelly Lonsberry, senior associate administrator for human resources at Watson Clinic said. “It’s really unprecedented. We went through the Delta variant and it was bad but it wasn’t this bad.”

Watson Clinic, which employs 1,700 people, has a vaccine requirement for its employees, with exemptions.

“It’s just a matter of reallocating resources so we have what we call float pool staff that we bring in when needed and we’re leaning heavily on them,” Lonsberry said.

Nurses, like so many others, are hoping the end of the pandemic is near.

“Very few other professions carry the weight of someone’s life or death situation in their hands. We carry that. We do it with grace. We do it with professionalism. We make it look easy. But it still pulls a little bit out of us every time,” Pyle said.