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The surreal lives of Arkansas nurses fighting Covid-19 inside the hospital and denial on the outside

By Elle Reeve, Samantha Guff and Deborah Brunswick, CNN

Sunny worked as a nurse on a Covid-19 floor of a hospital at the height of the pandemic. The work was hard, but what made it surreal was doing it while living in small town Arkansas, where many people, even some in her own family, said the virus was overblown — “just the flu.”

“It’s extremely difficult to watch so many people die, and then have people tell you on Facebook or in Walmart that you’re a liar,” Sunny said. Sometimes that would come from the loved ones of the patients she was taking care of.

“We had people accuse us of giving their loved one something else so that they would die and we could report it as Covid. We heard it more than once that we were fudging the numbers, or we were killing people on purpose to make Covid look like it was worse than it was, or to make it look real when it wasn’t,” she said.

Sunny asked CNN not to use her real name, because some dedicated Covid-19 deniers have harassed health care workers, or tried to get outspoken ones fired.

The politicization that led people to believe Covid-19 was some kind of scam is now affecting how many get vaccinated.

Just 36% of Arkansans are fully vaccinated, the third-lowest rate in the country. This week, Arkansas had its biggest spike in cases since February, and it has the worst case rate in the country. The state government is offering incentives to get vaccinated, like free lottery tickets. It hasn’t convinced many; Gov. Asa Hutchinson has said it’s not working.

Sunny fears that could mean the Delta variant will make many people in her community sick, and push some nurses to quit.

“A lot of nurses have compassion fatigue. And I am really scared of how that’s gonna play out, because a lot of the cases that we’re seeing are in non-vaccinated individuals.”

“Nurses were really the symbol for this pandemic and all of the hate was centered around us — the hate, the fear, the respect, all of it,” Sunny said. A lot of nurses have PTSD from 2020, she said, “And now we’re having people come in and look us in the face and be like, ‘No I didn’t get the vaccine, and now I’m sick.”

What locals say about vaccinations

CNN drove around the western part of Arkansas last weekend, talking to people about whether they’d get the vaccine.

At a convenience store in Mena, Arkansas, Joy Starr said her 8-year-old son had gotten Covid-19. “He was sick a lot,” Starr said. “He’s been sick a lot for a while. And he’s still sick. He’s having stomach issues. So I’m going to get him looked at and see if there’s further damage. I don’t know, I mean, because he got real sick. Fever every day for weeks. And stomach pain.”

Would she and her son get the vaccine? “No. No vaccine,” Starr said. “I just don’t trust the government.”

In a nearby barber shop, Mike Clark said, “I have not and I will not” get the vaccine.

“I’m not a guinea pig, there’s not a chance,” Clark said. “I believe that it’s a freedom issue and I’ve worn a mask probably a maximum of one hour throughout this whole Covid thing.” He said he was 74, the prime age to get it. “If it’s so communicable, why am I still standing?”

The man cutting his hair, Ronnie Rodgers, said he wouldn’t either. Rodgers said he got Covid-19, then later had a heart attack. He thought he might have a bad reaction to the vaccine. Of course Covid had been politicized, Rodgers said. “It was the red hats against the blue masks.”

Not everyone around here feels this way, of course.

CNN ran into Billy Ray Jones, the mayor of Nashville, Arkansas, at a car wash. He said he was vaccinated, but told us where to find people who weren’t.

In Norman, a man running a yard sale said he’d been vaccinated, too.

“It’s better to take a chance on the shot than it is to take a chance on the Covid,” he said. “Just go on, cowboy up, and go on in there, and get a shot, and come out of there like a grown up.” He was wearing a cowboy hat and said to call him “Cowboy.”

How nurses have tried to fight misinformation

Hazel Bailey was working as a nurse in Hot Springs last August when she got Covid-19. She remembers taking an ambulance to the hospital. She woke up 42 days later. She’d been on a ventilator, then had a tracheostomy tube to help her breathe. She wouldn’t leave the hospital for almost two more months.

“While I was in ICU, once I finally did wake up, it would be day and night, I would hear codes being called — code Blue, which meant someone was basically dying,” Bailey said. She could tell they were mostly Covid-19 patients. “It just broke my heart. I would cry. And I would just pray for those people. Because I was in the same shape they were in.”

“I have family that, they don’t say it’s not real — they believe that it’s real, but they’re not concerned with taking the vaccine,” Bailey said. “They understand some people get it, and it’s not bad. But I got it and it was bad.”

Bailey’s sister was at her house while Bailey spoke with CNN. Her sister confirmed she wouldn’t get the vaccine, but declined to be interviewed about it. She said her comments wouldn’t be fit for television.

“Our lives have changed. Our lives will never be the same after Covid,” Bailey said. “And when I say that, I’m talking about our country. We’ll never be the same because of Covid.”

Sunny, the other Arkansas nurse, got on TikTok last year to vent and has used her account to spread awareness of what nurses were going through. She has since racked up nearly 140,000 followers with a mix of nurse-related comedy and searing stories about life on the Covid floor.

Other nurses sent her messages, thanking her for speaking out. But her videos were not always well received.

“I get called a crisis actor all the time,” she said, referring to the conspiracy theory that victims of mass casualty events are actually actors paid by the government. “It’s my thing now to respond to hate comments with, ‘For just $10 into my Venmo account, I’ll tell you the truth about Covid-19 and crisis acting.'”

So far she says she’s made about $100. “I’m just like, ‘Crisis acting isn’t it real. And Covid is real. Surprise! I said I’d tell you the truth, not the truth you wanted to hear.'”

When Sunny meets Covid deniers in real life, she says she usually tears up and then awkwardly walks away. She even saw it within her own family.

“My own dad — who I love, and is a great person — I had to show him, like, no, this is real,” she said. He was slowly convinced by “watching what it did to me personally — getting phone calls from me during work where I’m just broken down crying … There was so much death.”

He got the vaccine.

™ & © 2021 Cable News Network, Inc., a WarnerMedia Company. All rights reserved.

CNN’s Eric Levenson contributed to this report.

Article Topic Follows: CNN - National

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