It was two years ago this week that COVID cases in New Jersey started rising rapidly. Gov. Phil Murphy announced an extended statewide shutdown was imminent and hospitals suddenly had a flood of new patients who were having trouble breathing.

Longtime critical care nurse Corinna Byrne at Hackensack Meridian Health couldn’t believe what was happening.

“At first I honestly didn’t think it was going to be such a threat, but then it was something I have never been a part of or seen in my entire career,” she said.

It was chaos

Byrne said as hospitals began treating more and more patients with COVID, entire floors were transformed into makeshift intensive care units and the scene became chaotic.

“We didn’t have enough staff to take care of these people. Patients could no longer be kept in the ER. They would pick them up on stretchers into the hallways of new now ICUs,” she said.

“There were no rooms available for these people, they came to us not being able to breathe and they deteriorated quite rapidly.”

She said any nurse with critical care experience was rushed back into service to help handle the overflow of COVID patients, while nurses with no critical care experience were given crash-course training sessions so they could join the ranks in a few days.

Nevertheless, many patients began developing blood clots, having strokes and going into renal failure.

No answers, a lot of death

“Why, why was this happening? We just had no answers,” Byrne said.

“Unfortunately a lot of what we did at that moment in time didn’t seem to make a difference, there was a lot of death.”

She stressed all health care workers are attuned to emergency situations but this was unlike what anyone had ever seen before.

“Often you’d get through the shift without falling apart, there were times that you did and you had to take a moment but you didn’t really have any moments to take,” she said.

Byrne said sometimes a fellow nurse would take over someone's duties for a few minutes so they could go into the bathroom and cry.

Like being in a war

“It was as if being at war ... a lot of death and a lot of sadness,” she said.

And two years later, many nurses and other health care workers are still burnt out.

“Nurses, the doctors, the respiratory therapists, every employee, on the whole, they’re tired, they’re exhausted,” she said.

She said much has been learned about COVID, treatments have improved greatly and cases are now dropping dramatically but “it was such a difficult time that a lot of us still might have a little PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) from it."

Judy Schmidt, the CEO of the New Jersey State Nurses Association, said a two-year public health crisis has profoundly impacted many nurses “not only emotionally, mentally, but also physically, some of their assignments were, in some cases double what they would have done on a regular routine.”

Byrne noted there are also some feelings of anger and frustration that are kept suppressed by nurses, as unvaccinated patients are now being admitted to hospitals with COVID.

She said vaccination has become politicized and “it didn’t allow people to make educated decisions.”

David Matthau is a reporter for New Jersey 101.5. You can reach him at david.matthau@townsquaremedia.com

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NJ teachers and educators caught in sex crime busts

Over the past few years, state lawmakers have taken on the challenge of dealing with accused child predators among the ranks of teachers and educators.

In 2018, the so-called “pass the trash” law went into effect, requiring stricter New Jersey school background checks related to child abuse and sexual misconduct.

The follow individuals were arrested over the past several years. Some have been convicted and sentenced to prison, while others have accepted plea deals for probation.

Others cases are still pending, including some court delays amid the COVID-19 pandemic.