‘We are trying to survive’—what it’s like fighting COVID on the front line in MurrayJan 13, 2022 12:05PM ● By Shaun Delliskave
Adams Balls is IMC’s ER medical director and Murray Fire Departments. (Photo courtesy of Intermountain Healthcare)
By Shaun Delliskave | [email protected]
In Murray’s IMC emergency room, intubations are high-stress procedures requiring skilled medical staff to place a tube down a patient’s throat to pump oxygen into their lungs. After nearly two years of COVID, Dr. Adam Balls, ER medical director at IMC, knows the procedure all too well.
Like other ER staff across the nation, Balls watches the toll of battling that disease on his colleagues. The never-ending flow of COVID patients overburdening the number of available beds impacts medical workers not just physically but mentally as well.
“We are trying to survive,” Balls said. “We are trying to put on our best face and treat each of our patients with respect and dignity despite our internal stress and anxiety. It has increased the amount of burnout among our ED caregivers, and we have spent additional time focusing on ways to better take care of our mental health and look out for the well-being of each other.”
No stranger to tense medical situations, Balls spent four years active duty in the USAF and served two deployments to Iraq and Germany as the team lead for a critical care air transport team. Since 2015, Balls has been IMC’s emergency department medical director.
“Life has been in a constant change of change over the last few years. Fear and uncertainty during the early stages of the pandemic have been replaced by frustration in continuing to treat patients with COVID-19 who refuse to protect themselves with available vaccines. The hospitals have run at or above capacity over the last two years due to increased COVID volumes in the medical floors and ICU,” Balls said.
In December, the surge in COVID cases rivaled the previous winter. According to a Utah Department of Health analysis, unvaccinated Utahns were 15.5 times more likely to die of COVID-19 than vaccinated people and 9.3 times more likely to be hospitalized.
“We initially had a dip in our ER volumes during the spring of 2020 due to the lockdowns and social distancing. As our volumes have returned to normal, we continue to treat high numbers of sick COVID-19 patients while taking care of other emergency conditions,” Balls said.
However, not just the lack of beds that is challenging Balls, but the decrease in staff. Hospitals throughout the state have seen medical staff burnout translate into resignations.
“The burden of COVID-19 has caused an increased turnover in our ER staff, and nationwide there are significant nursing shortages that make staffing our EDs much more difficult. Many excellent nurses have decided to leave the chaos and stress of the ED to seek employment at other lower-stress health care sites or even take jobs outside of healthcare,” Balls said.
Personally, Balls says that he understands his colleagues’ fatigue. But, according to him, “It has increased the stress in my work as a bedside emergency physician and increased the amount of stress, anxiety, and worry in my role as ED medical director and worrying about our caregivers and patients.”
With the December arrival of the omicron variant of the coronavirus, Balls says that he is not too surprised.
“The virus may continue to mutate, and this will require modifications to current vaccines to prevent infection from additional variants. Mutations (and other viruses) will continue to cause pandemics in the next few years, and we hope the public takes these new illnesses seriously,” Balls said.
In October and November, protests took place on Murray’s State Street against the federal vaccine mandate. It’s not clear why the protestors chose IMC’s emergency department entrance rather than a federal government building as their protest site.
“COVID-19 doesn’t discriminate,” Balls said. “Vaccines work. Those with chronic medical illnesses and the elderly are at increased risk of severe illness if they become infected with COVID-19. Getting a vaccine not only protects you, it reduces the spread of COVID-19 in the community and protects our friends and loved ones from becoming severely ill and hospitalized due to COVID-19.”
In early December, 82% of all COVID cases in Murray belonged to those who were unvaccinated, according to the Salt Lake County Health Department. Out of 49,105 Murrayites, there have been 8,054 cases of COVID since the outbreak. Furthermore, out of the 1,274 Utahns who have died from the disease, 56 were Murrayites. While Murray School District had low incidences of COVID, schoolchildren this year have a higher incidence than last year.
Utah’s vaccination rates have improved, especially when the vaccines were approved for children ages six and up. Salt Lake County reported that vaccination clinics were busy in November when the approval was granted.
“The vaccines have truly provided a great defense against COVID-19. We are grateful for the safe and effective vaccines that were developed to provide excellent immune protection against COVID-19. As more people continue to be vaccinated, we will continue to make progress in the fight against COVID-19. We have also realized that the COVID-19 pandemic has not turned into an endemic disease that we will continue to deal with each year, much like the influenza virus,” Balls said.
While some people take issue with vaccine mandates, others have an issue with vaccines themselves.
“I am frustrated that many have been misled by the misinformation surrounding COVID-19 and the vaccines. I hope that people get their knowledge and facts from reputable sources and begin to trust the opinions of their medical providers in regard to the safety and efficacy of vaccines,” Balls said.
Even with the drama going on in and outside the ER, Balls doesn’t regret going into emergency medicine.
“During my college career, I realized I didn’t want to work in a desk job. My sister finished her degree as a nurse, and I became interested in medicine through her example, getting my EMT certification while in college and shadowing my wife’s uncle, who worked as an emergency medicine physician. I wanted to use my skills and training to become a physician in the ED that cared for people during their acute medical or trauma emergencies,” Balls said.
On top of all that, he serves as medical director for the Murray Fire Department. He oversees the medical care of the crews, does monthly quality learning reviews with each shift, and reviews Murray FD’s medical policies and procedures.
Balls was honored in 2018 for his efforts to improve mental health and wellness for first responders. The Ten4 Responding organization recognized his work with the Murray FD. Ten4 Responding is part of the veteran’s Honor365 group and, according to its website, honors those who “respond to the concerns regarding suicide in the world that is impacting those who serve.”
Still, Balls remains hopeful that more of the public will receive their vaccines and accompanying boosters. The COVID vaccine and boosters are free. People can learn more about the vaccines and boosters online and how to obtain one from the Salt Lake County Health Department website: slco.org/health/COVID-19.