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Exclusive: Inside Mercy Hospital's COVID-19 ICU

Mercy Hospital St. Louis granted 5 On Your Side access to its COVID-19 Intensive Care Unit

CREVE COEUR, Mo. — It's a once-in-a-century fight to save lives that, until now, most have never seen. 

For eight months health care workers have waged war against COVID-19 mostly behind closed hospital doors - until now. 

Monday, Mercy Hospital St. Louis granted 5 On Your Side access to its COVID-19 Intensive Care Unit (ICU) at a time when the region's pandemic task force reports St. Louis area hospitals are in danger of running out of room for the most critical coronavirus patients. 

"At any time of the day or night, they can call and say, 'We're out of beds,'" said Julie Brooks, Mercy Hospital's Executive Director of Nursing in St. Louis. "That's our signal to go and we just come in and make it happen," she said while guiding a reporter through the ICU. 

Brooks says this latest surge of COVID-19 has forced her and her team to find more space for critical patients by improvising "on an hourly basis." 

The hospital has quarantined COVID-19 patients away from other ICU patients. And built out more rooms with the specialized airflow and other equipment to handle the worst COVID-19 cases. 

Because the virus is airborne and highly contagious doctors and nurses have strict requirements for personal protective equipment, and the ventilation in patient rooms is designed to keep air from rushing out of the room when the door is opened.

There are 12 of these rooms dedicated to COVID-19 ICU patients.

The day 5 On Your Side was allowed inside all 12 were full.

Brooks and her team can manage to find more rooms but they can't make more doctors and nurses on demand.

Caring for just one critical patient can require several nurses and doctors and - like all of the hospitals in the St. Louis region - there is concern this current surge of COVID-19 cases could soon mean too many critical patients for the staff to handle.

Patients like Steve Jeffrey who says he contracted COVID-19 despite a self-quarantine. 

Like all the patients here, it's too dangerous to allow him to have any visitors. 

5 On Your Side's Casey Nolen spoke to Jeffery through a webcam-like system the hospital installed in patient rooms to allow nurses to communicate with COVID-19 patients with fewer visits inside their potentially contaminated rooms. 

 "Not seeing my wife is very difficult," said Jeffery from his ICU bed. 

"The people here have been great and very friendly," he said between coughing spells. "But...it's not it's not family."

It doesn't take long when inside the ICU to realize COVID-19 is taking an emotional toll on the staff, too. 

"It's just a lot that we handle and it's a lot to go through," said registered nurse Lori Lynn.

She said the stress doesn't end with her shift. Since the spring, she's tried to keep her distance from family members - worried about spreading the virus to her father who has diabetes. 

"Sometimes that's the hardest part...just isolating completely from everybody. It's just hard to be here and then go back home and not really have much to go back home to," said Lynn. 

But, she and so many health care workers in St. Louis and across the country keep coming to work and keep hoping that those who'll likely never see their sacrifice will make some of their own. 

"They need to stay home and they need to wear their mask. They need to listen to the science because it's real right now," said Brooks the nursing director. 

Asked if she's concerned that COVID-19 could overwhelm the capacity to care for those who need it most she said, "I think it's a concern for everyone. And I think it's a concern for the entire city, not just for Mercy St. Louis."