COVID-Related Nurse Shortage Leads to Temporary NICU Closure

At birth, some premature infants are born so early and so tiny that they can fit in an adult’s hand. They can weigh scarcely more than four cubes of butter. Their eyes are sometimes fused as tightly shut as kittens’; with skin so translucent and delicate that it can tear. Lungs are routinely undeveloped. “Preemies” have difficulty breathing and eating, and can have vision and hearing problems.

These premature newborns are among a hospital’s most high-risk, vulnerable patients; the very patients Mercy Medical Center’s Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) has routinely admitted to its state-of-the-art facility in Redding, the only one like it north of Sacramento.

Here in Shasta County, renowned for increasingly heated disagreements between those who welcome vaccines and those who shun them, the pandemic’s divisive reality has infiltrated Redding’s only NICU at Mercy Medical Center.

There, unless current low-staff conditions change drastically and more NICU nurses are soon available to work, some of the north state’s tiniest, most dependent newborn residents and their families may find Mercy NICU shuttered until further notice.

Monday, a credible source with close ties to Mercy Medical Center reported that as of that morning, the hospital’s NICU was closed to transfers and new admissions, though the source was unaware of any babies or mothers who’d been transferred thus far.

“This could change tomorrow if there are some more nurses to work,” the source said. “It ends up at this point being a day-to-day thing.”

The source said that Covid cases are a factor in the hospital’s relatively recent shortage of registered NICU nurses.

A News Cafe reached out to Mercy for comment before 5 p.m. Monday, but has not yet heard back with a response.

One hospital insider estimated that about 95 percent of Mercy’s physicians have been vaccinated, compared with about 45-percent of unvaccinated remaining hospital staff and healthcare workers, such as registered nurses, X-ray technicians, phlebotomists and respiratory therapists.

Photo source: Mercy Medical Center website

Mercy Medical Center NICU – A crucial program

Mercy Foundation North’s website describes the Redding hospital’s Level III NICU as a crucial place that cares for the north state’s youngest, most critically ill newborns in a geographical area that extends from Medford to Sacramento, and from the coast to Reno. Mercy Medical Center’s NICU cares for nearly 400 babies each year.

The website also shared one north-state couple’s NICU story that recounted how the first-time mother went into early labor nearly 10 weeks prior to the twin girls’ due date. Baby A weighed 2 pounds, 11 ounces. Baby B weighed 3 pounds, 6 ounces. The newborn girls were taken immediately to Mercy’s NICU where they remained for 74 days.

The story pointed out that without the benefit of Mercy’s NICU, the newborn girls would have been flown to UC Davis, something that was then inconceivable for the young parents.

“Being able to be close to home and surrounded by the love and support of our family and friends was absolutely crucial to staying focused and getting through the highs and lows of NICU life,” said one parent.

Award-winning NICU nurse/COVID non-believer

Mercy Medical Center’s NICU webpage also features a link to a story that recognized and celebrated Joanne Thorpe, a since-retired Mercy Medical Center NICU nurse. Thorpe’s exemplary service earned her the NICU Heroes Award. Thorpe donated her $2500 prize to Mercy Foundation North for the purchase of special rocker devices that can help soothe drug-exposed infants. Clearly, Thorpe had a passion for her work in the NICU.

However, Thorpe is among a growing number of healthcare workers who doubt the science behind the Coronavirus, and who refuses to be vaccinated.

The same story that highlighted Thorpe’s work also told of one mother who was so inspired by Thorpe and Mercy’s NICU that the former maternity patient went on to eventually become a NICU nurse, too.

The rally

Thorpe, who’s now retired from Mercy’s NICU, has social media pages that suggest a mistrust of vaccines. She also has posts that support the Red White and Blueprint organization, the group led by self-described combat veteran Carlos Zapata, who owns a Florida strip club, a Tehama County bar/restaurant and a Palo Cedro bull business.  He and his wife Rebecca Zapata were featured recently on a conservative radio talk show in which Rebecca Zapata made critical and inaccurate statements against her employer, Mercy Medical Center, regarding the pandemic and state mandates. Both Zapatas have vowed to not receive a vaccine.

Rebecca Zapata is a registered nurse who works in Mercy Medical Center’s NICU.

Thorpe’s Facebook page also contained posts about an Aug. 9 rally at Mercy Medical Center to protest state vaccine mandates, with invitations extended to healthcare workers and their supporters.

In one social media post, Thorpe told about her 30-year career with the hospital, and her thoughts about what she saw as the hospital’s “tyranny” and the “insanity” of coercion upon employees:

“I am grateful I was able to retire early. But I cant stand idle on this. Those that know me know where I stand on forced medical procedures. This is full blown coercion. I will be joining my fellow RNs to fight this blatant tyranny on our health care workers. This is wrong.”

According to one Mercy employee who asked to remain anonymous, the rally outside Mercy Medical Center is a direct response to a recent hospital directive that notified employees that they’d be required to be vaccinated, or tested weekly, effective Aug. 23.

Many Mercy Medical Center employees are rejecting Dignity Health’s statement. Similar introductory text accompanies various Facebook posts by people besides Thorpe, such as Scott Frank, whose Facebook profile identified him as a Cottonwood resident who studied respiratory therapy at Butte College:

“Save the Date!! Please tell family, friends, business owners, and the citizens of Shasta County to come out and support our local HCW fighting for their right to medical freedom against all C19 mandates. Please wear scrubs if you are a HCW. Let’s make some noise!!! Feel free to share and make signs that are specific to the cause.”

Like Thorpe, Frank’s Facebook page also praised the Red White and Blueprint project.

Meanwhile, many other healthcare workers, those who believe in the science behind the vaccine, and who believe the Coronavirus is real, may also show up on Aug. 9 for a counter-protest. One such healthcare worker, who asked that we not publish an identity, feels frustrated by colleagues who refuse the vaccine.

“They did not go into healthcare for the right reasons if they refuse to protect their patients,” the exasperated healthcare worker said.

“I have just had it with the anti-vax nurses in this town. Honestly, the hospital should fire them all and bring in a vaccinated strike team to work.”

As Shasta County’s Covid dispute rages on, all the while, babies will be born in the north state, and if all goes well, they’ll arrive full term and healthy. However, if United States’ data holds true, one out of approximately every 10 Shasta County babies will be born prematurely. Those newborns’ lives will depend upon access to a NICU.

On Aug. 9 outside Mercy Medical Center, as adult healthcare workers hold signs and debate the pros and cons of mandatory vaccines, more Shasta County residents will continue to test positive for the Coronavirus, with a strong likelihood that the newly infected will be the staunchly unvaccinated.

One thing is certain: The higher Mercy’s Covid numbers climb, the more likely it is that the hospital’s NICU will remained shuttered. Because of that, unspeakably fragile miniature human beings will be driven to hospitals hours away from their families. Parents will be forced to travel back and forth for up to months on end to be with their premature children. Hospitalized mothers, like those who’ve had c-sections, will be required to remain at Mercy, while their newborns are whisked away by ambulances to other cities, far from where they were born; to places where talk of the sanctity of life extends also to the just-born.


8/3/2021 10:50 a.m. update: This story has been revised to correct the department in which Rebecca Zapata works. She works in Mercy Medical Center’s NICU.

Doni Chamberlain

Independent online journalist Doni Chamberlain founded A News Cafe in 2007 with her son, Joe Domke. Chamberlain holds a Bachelor's Degree in journalism from CSU, Chico. She's an award-winning newspaper opinion columnist, feature and food writer recognized by the Associated Press, the California Newspaper Publishers Association and E.W. Scripps. She's been featured and quoted in The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, L.A. Times, Slate. Bloomberg News and on CNN, KQED and KPFA. She lives in Redding, California.

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