While the number of patients continues to dramatically fall as more Americans have gotten vaccinated, Kayla Chelf, a registered nurse at Baptist Health Hospital in Louisville, Kentucky, said treating individual COVID-19 patients is just as challenging as ever, and the memory of those lost still weighs heavily on her mind.
As the country eases back to normal, lifting precautions and restrictions instituted to combat the spread of the virus that has killed nearly 600,000 people in the United States alone, Chelf said she's reminded daily of the toll the pandemic has taken.
"It's been very, very challenging. I would say the largest challenge of my nursing career has been taking care of COVID patients," Chelf, who has been a coronary care nurse for four years, said in a video diary shared with ABC News. "The patients that we're seeing in critical care are extremely ill. Often, we do everything we can for them, and it's not enough -- we still lose them."
Between March 2020, when the global pandemic was declared, to March 2021, Chelf and her colleagues assigned to an 18-bed unit at Baptist Health have lost 119 patients, according to the hospital's palliative care coordinator.
"To lose that number of patients in the manner that we were losing them, which was often traumatic without their families, it's been really, really hard on the staff to see that kind of loss," Chelf said.
Chelf said that since the introduction of the COVID-19 vaccines in December, the number of patients in the care of her and her co-workers has gradually diminished.
"Right now, we have two patients that have COVID, and unfortunately those two patients are quite ill," Chelf said. "We've not seen a decline in acuity, but we have seen a decline in numbers, and that's encouraging."
The latest data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows that 50.8% of the total U.S. population has received at least one dose of the vaccine and 41% are fully vaccinated.
COVID-19 deaths nationwide have plummeted from a high of more than 4,000 a day in January to 363 per day as of Tuesday, June 1, according to the CDC COVID Data Tracker. The number of new COVID-19 diagnoses has also fallen from an average of more than 250,000 a day in January to around 15,000 a day, according to the CDC, though recent data may have been impacted by the Memorial Day holiday.
Reflecting over the past 14 months, Chelf said in her video diary that it has been a long road and that with each passing day the profile of those badly in need of care has also changed from what she saw at the height of the pandemic when her unit was filled with mostly elderly patients.
"We are still seeing COVID patients that are very, very ill, but those patients that we're seeing are unvaccinated and, unfortunately, some of the patients that we're seeing are younger, more in the age range of the 40s to 50s," Chelf said.
She said one of the toughest things she has faced as a lifesaver is comforting dying people who were isolated from their loved ones.
"As people were passing away, we were the only people that were able to be with them. That was very emotionally taxing on top of it just being physically exhausting wearing the PPE, and the level of care that we're having to provide for patients."
Chelf said that prior to the pandemic, nurses like her were used to seeing patients die in the critical care unit.
"The difference with COVID was these were patients that wouldn't typically be this sick, and you really felt like they had a lot of life ahead of them, and you were just fighting against a virus that we didn't know a lot about, especially in the beginning," Chelf said. "We've come to learn more, but we still don't know nearly enough to save a lot of the patients that do get this sick."
She said it has been frustrating for nurses and other health care professionals to hear people diminish the severity of COVID-19 and discount the effectiveness of the vaccines. She said she wishes doubters could "spend a day in our shoes" and believes that would change their perspective.
"I think it's really hard to understand if you haven't seen it for yourself how dangerous and how scary COVID can be," Chelf said. "This is a place of understanding, because we've seen this firsthand. And we understand the dangers of COVID and want to help prevent that for as many people as we can."