Rare access: A look inside Harborview Medical's somber COVID-19 ICU

There is a constant beeping inside Harborview Medical Center’s COVID-19 Intensive Care Unit (ICU), a reminder that the COVID patients in the room are fighting for their lives.

FOX 13 News got rare access inside the ICU where nurse manager Janelle Downey talked about the desperate fight to keep people alive

"If a person’s oxygen starts decreasing, we hear alarms," Downey said. 

During the two hours inside, FOX 13 News saw teams of doctors and nurses congregating and strategizing in the hallways.

When we asked Downey how tired she was, her answer is simply that everyone is exhausted.

"We are working extra hours. We have nurses working 16-hour shifts," Downey said.

We also happened to run into Dr. James Town as he made his rounds. 

Town stepped into a room that he’s been going to for weeks now with the same patient inside. 

It’s one thing to see the sick on a TV screen, but it’s another level of emotions when you witness a human being in person, lifeless. Tubes are sticking out of their throats because they can’t breathe for themselves.

After coming out of the room, Town is somber.

RELATED: COVID surge in Washington the worst it's been since the start of the pandemic

"Unfortunately, this patient has had a lot of setbacks. He’s not really in a good place," Town said.

Doctors say the patient in his 40s had no underlying problems and was otherwise healthy, until COVID.

The patients they are seeing are younger. Most are in ICU for weeks, if not months. 

They are sedated, which means family members are at home unable to communicate with them.

The isolation is heart-wrenching, so much so that there are pictures of family members hanging in different rooms-- a desperate request by loved ones who want to be here but are not allowed.

In their place are people like nurse Downey. She talks to the patients even if they are sedated, hoping it will make them feel less alone.

"You get to know them personally and you get to know their family members," Downey said. 

The hardest cases for Downey are the ones when they lose parents, because she is a mom herself to a 2-year-old and pregnant expecting her second child.

RELATED: Rise in COVID hospitalizations in rural areas leaving few, if any, beds for other patients

"Watching these families go through that is heartbreaking," Downey said.

She says she’s put too many people into body bags, and her mental health is suffering because of it.

"This is a pretty scary situation in the ICU," 

The scariest part is that sometimes everything is not enough.

 "A lot of expertise, respiratory therapists, nurses, pulmonary and critical care doctors," Dr. John Lynch said.

Even with the best care and best technology, a patient's outcome is still unpredictable. 

For health care workers, the sadness is amplified because they say the vast majority of COVID hospitalizations are preventable.

"The degree of misinformation and how easily that propagates it’s stunning to me. We are seeing people die who shouldn’t be dying," Town said.

The vast majority of the patients in the ICU are unvaccinated.

Lynch says there is a disconnect in the community, with some people still arguing over the seriousness of the virus while doctors and nurses are struggling to keep people alive.

RELATED: Unvaccinated individuals are 29 times more likely to be hospitalized from COVID-19, CDC says

"My base human response is extreme frustration," Lynch said. 

Still, they give it their all, even when they know that the chances of survival are slim in many cases.

"We don’t give up hope. It takes a long time," Town said.

For the patients lucky enough to make it out of the ICU, doctors say it is unclear what the long-term health effects will be.

"It may be a couple of years before we know the answer to that question," Town said.

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