TAMPA, Fla. — At Tampa General Hospital on Florida's west coast, the pandemic is simply overwhelming staff.
"I think it's hard to put into words," said nurse manager Ty Breiter.
He leads a complex medicine unit that was converted to a COVID-only unit about a month ago.
SPECIAL COVERAGE: Coronavirus
"This is like nothing I've done in my career, and I've been in health care through some very significant times," said Lara Klick, vice president of the patient experience department.
For the past 18 months, she and her staff have been consoling sick and dying patients and their grieving families.
At Tampa General Hospital, hospitalizations continue to peak with patients coming in younger and sicker. More than 91 percent of those admitted for COVID-19 are unvaccinated and all of them are desperate.
"We can have patients who need up to 15 liters of oxygen," Breiter said. "That’s a lot of oxygen. Normally people are on two, four or six liters. It's tough," he said.
Breiter's unit is part of the hospital's complex medicine unit, which is typically dedicated to general medical patients. It's also one of 10 units in the hospital forced to flip to a COVID-only unit as a result of the surge that started late this summer.
Health care workers in the unit are trained to deal with death, but for the past month death in the unit has become all too common.
"We had a patient pass away last night. We have a patient on the unit right now that just recently came. Yea, so I would say regularly," said Breiter.
Around the hospital, death to a single disease is shattering records and taking its toll.
Sabrina Ridout manages a 17-bed intensive care unit that also recently flipped to serve some of the sickest patients with COVID-19.
She had to walk away for a moment after describing the difficulty of watching families come in to say goodbye to loved ones who don’t make it out of the unit.
Wednesday morning was another rough day for her team in the ICU.
"I actually have a family that's on their way right now," Ridout said through tears.
The constant battle against the disease and long hours on the job is increasingly frustrating to health care workers given the availability and success of vaccinations. In Florida, a little more than half of the state's residents are vaccinated.
But across Florida, there are early signs of hope.
Hospitalizations are down to nearly 15,000 from a summer peak that reached 17,000. New hospital admissions statewide have also dropped from the previous week according to Florida's Hospital Association.
"We are very encouraged by what we are seeing that we could be seeing, finally, the decline," FHA's Executive Director Mary Mayhew said.
Mayhew attributes the decline to vaccinations and the monoclonal antibody treatments.
According to Mayhew, 40,000 people in Florida have received the treatment.
At Tampa General Hospital, frontline health care workers are hopeful for some sign of relief.
"To watch that family member say their last goodbye, that's the hardest part for me," Ridout said. "It's been a rough day. It's our new normal."