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'If you're sick, nothing else matters': ICU nurses speak out against 'Reopen Missouri' protests

"We have resolved that we are probably going to end up in the position of the patient's we're taking care of," one nurse said

ST. LOUIS — Hundreds of protesters rallied at the Missouri state Capitol on Tuesday with signs, flags and even copies of the Constitution. Their message: a call for Missouri to allow its businesses to reopen and do away with current stay-at-home orders in place.

The group behind the statewide protest, Reopen Missouri, also hosted a similar protest in Clayton on Tuesday. Even though St. Louis County leads the state with the most cases of COVID-19 — 40% of the state's confirmed cases are in the county — and accounts for about half of the deaths, protesters took to the streets with the same anti-stay-at-home message. 

RELATED: Coronavirus misinformation flourishes in online protest groups

A nurse working in the ICU, treating coronavirus patients at a hospital in St. Louis County, has a message of her own.

“If you’re sick, nothing else matters," she said. "If you’re in the hospital on a ventilator and you can’t communicate with your family, or your family with you, or you with your employer, nothing else matters. I think we really need to get over this hump before we start opening things up. I think it’s too soon.”

She said she has sympathy for the people around the state who are without work, but she said there is a larger picture to consider when looking at the health of Missouri residents.

"It’s horrible not having a job and not being able to provide for your family," she said. "But it’s going to be worse if you’re not here or your family’s not here or your employer’s not here because they’re sick.”

RELATED: When can we start to reopen Missouri? Not yet, St. Louis doctors say

Meanwhile, on the other side of the state, a nurse working in the COVID-19 ICU at a hospital in Kansas City told 5 On Your Side the hospital where she works is anticipating more people to get sick because of the rallies and protests. 

"We have been keeping our staffing consistent in anticipation for an influx of patients as people start to take less consideration into social distancing and especially with the protests," she said. "It makes me very concerned for the individuals who are out there not taking this seriously."

Both nurses asked 5 On Your Side not to disclose their identities or the hospitals where they work, but they both said serving on the front line of the battle against COVID-19 has been a daunting task. 

"Walking onto the unit with all your PPE on is extremely overwhelming," the St. Louis County nurse said. "My first time walking into a patient’s room, I was tearing up. It was terrifying. These patients are intubated, and they can’t talk and they don’t know what’s going. I don’t know if it’s better or worse to not have them be able to communicate with you and tell you their fears and anxieties.”

She said, for the first few weeks, treating patients for COVID-19 seemed to be a losing battle. Now, she said her team is in a better situation. 

"I think we’re doing a fine job as far as the influx of patients, but now seems to be better than a few weeks ago when it seemed like patients were getting sicker and sicker really fast," she said. "Patients were getting intubated, the rate was climbing as far as diagnoses and patients getting sick.”

The nurse based in Kansas City said the most difficult part of an already-demanding job is the emotional, physical and mental toll COVID-19 is taking on her and the nurses and other medical professionals she works with. 

"We have resolved that we are probably going to end up in the position of the patients we're taking care of," she said. "It's something I was really anxious about when I was coming back to work. I just have to have faith in the equipment we have now and follow protocols as closely as possible. 

Both nurses said they've established their own routines of changing clothes before they leave work and setting up a station to disinfect before they enter their homes to protect their families. 

"I told my husband, 'I'm going to get it. It's going to be fine,'" the nurse in St. Louis County said. 

She said she has not experienced any symptoms, and she is not concerned about any complications if she were to contract the disease. However, she said she constantly worries about spreading it to others around her and the public. 

"I don't go anywhere," she said. "I don't want to be out in public. I don't want to be around anyone else."

While the Kansas City-based nurse said she currently has the PPE she needs, she said she is concerned about running out as Missouri reaches its peak number of cases. 

“I’m really worried for the upcoming weeks as the number continues to climb," she said. "I know our hospital has been very cautious and protective of the equipment we have right now, but I definitely think there’s going to be a tipping point, where there won’t be enough.”

As protests to end stay-at-home orders continue across the nation, both nurses said they hope states will hold off. In Kansas City, nurses took to the streets in their scrubs, standing up in protest of the rallies. 

“I really wish a lot of people protesting and not taking this seriously could just spend two hours in the ICU with all of the equipment we have to wear," the Kansas City-based nurse said. "It’s definitely hurtful, and makes me feel like me putting my heart and soul into my job doesn’t mean as much as it should.”

She said she, and her other team members, got into the health care field because of their passion for service. However, she said everyone has a limit. 

"When I signed up to be a nurse, I did it because I wanted to help people," she said. "Every single person in the hospital went into their profession with the mindset that they want to make a difference and they want to help people, but it’s definitely unsettling for us first responders."

RELATED: As protesters demand to 'Reopen Missouri,' public health experts say we still don't have enough testing

She said with the risk, and the reality in some places, of not having the tools they need should not be part of their service. 

"We signed up to do this because we love helping people, but we didn’t do it to work without the appropriate equipment, without the tools to go into our own personal battles," she said. "It didn’t necessarily mean that we were signing up to be martyrs.”

She said she believes many of the people taking part in the rallies don't fully understand how serious the virus is. She admits she and nurses she works with initially assumed COVID-19 would be similar to working during a regular flu season.

"This is definitely not the flu," she said. “We have patients coming in completely healthy, and four hours later they’re on a ventilator and fighting for their lives. It's absolutely not what we thought we’d be going into from those initial first days and weeks.”

She said, working in the ICU, the number of patients she's seen pass away from the virus surpasses those who have recovered, and she said a majority of those patients are elderly. 

"These patients are really, really sick," she said. "The media isn't making this up. They're not exaggerating. Anyone who thinks that is welcome to come spend some time in our ICU."

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