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WASHINGTON — Nichole Atherton couldn't take it anymore.
The intensive care nurse watched helplessly last year as COVID-19 sufferers died in her Mississippi hospital — slowly, painfully and alone. Then in July she was again confronted with a wave of deathly ill patients, even though almost all likely could have saved themselves by getting the coronavirus vaccine.
"People want to argue about masks and vaccines and freedom. I just don't want to watch anyone else die," the 39-year-old mother of two wrote on Facebook a few days ago. "I see their faces in my nightmares. And it feels like it is never ending."
As the United States grapples with rising infections, hospitalizations and deaths amid a surge of the virus' delta variant, exhausted and desperate health care workers are turning to social media to describe the grim reality they face.
For some, the writing is cathartic, a way of processing their grief and anxiety. Others see it as a responsibility, using their devastating encounters with death to try to convince skeptical Americans to take the pandemic seriously.
"I just wanted people to know that it's real, and it's scary, and it's hard for us," Atherton said in a phone interview. "The first wave was heartbreaking, because there was nothing people could do except stay away from the people they love. This time, there are options."
New daily coronavirus cases in the United States have hit a six-month high, with the seven-day average reaching nearly 95,000. That rate is five times higher than it was less than a month ago, Reuters data shows.
Health officials have said the surge has been driven almost entirely by the unvaccinated. Vaccines are not widely available in many other countries, yet in the United States just 49% of the population of 330 million is fully vaccinated.
Doctors, nurses and hospital leaders interviewed in six states describe a workforce that is depleted and demoralized by wards overflowing with mostly unvaccinated patients.
The health providers who have waded into public forums in an effort to counter disinformation said they have sometimes been attacked online by anti-vaccine skeptics.
"There's so much misinformation out there," said Tiya Curtis-Morris, an emergency and intensive care nurse in southeastern Louisiana. "Maybe if I tell people, and they understand what we deal with everyday ... but they don't want to hear it."
Louisiana's governor reinstituted a mask mandate this week as the state set new daily hospitalization records and Curtis-Morris has been urging Facebook friends to wear them.
She is more careful discussing vaccines, saying she understands why some people are hesitant. The 46-year-old single mother of four daughters is vaccinated but held off until recently in having her younger children inoculated, in consultation with their pediatrician. Her mother has thus far refused, citing fears of side effects.
'It didn't have to be like this'
Earlier this week, ICU nurse Kathryn Ivey, 28, spent her break time at a Tennessee hospital crafting an emotionally raw Twitter thread.
"It is so much worse, this time," she wrote. "We all have so much less to give. We are still bearing the fresh and heavy grief of the last year and trying to find somewhere to put all this anger. But the patients don't stop coming. And the anger doesn't stop coming.
"It didn't have to be like this," she concluded.
The thread went viral.
Ivey said in an interview that she put her feelings down in writing for the sake of her mental health. A rash of patients — younger and younger, she said — have flooded her hospital, virtually all unvaccinated.
She expressed little hope that her words would make a difference. People who are most adamantly against vaccines will only be convinced if they see their loved ones sick, she said.
"That just breaks my heart: that people need to go through this hurt to understand," said Ivey, who began her career during the pandemic. "I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that if these people knew what COVID was, they would not risk it. But ignorance is a powerful thing."
Despair drove Atherton, the Mississippi nurse, to speak out.
On Facebook, she described in harrowing detail an unvaccinated woman struggling to breathe and scared of leaving her children behind without a mother.
At one point, the woman was desperate for a sip of water, and Atherton — despite her misgivings — agreed to remove her oxygen for a few seconds to offer her a drink. Soon after, the woman was intubated, having seen her family for the last time via video call.
"I wonder if I hadn't let her have that sip of water if she would still be alive," Atherton wrote. "My rational side knows she was too sick. She wouldn't have made it anyway. My emotional side will never stop wondering."
Three people have messaged her to say they will get vaccinated, Atherton said.
But the accumulated strain of seeing so much death has become too much for Atherton, who told her hospital last week she is resigning.
She plans to work as a nurse elsewhere, she said. She just can no longer bear witness to COVID-19's daily toll on members of her own community.
Contributing: Sharon Bernstein, Brad Brooks