While nurses toil to care for COVID-19 patients, they often face criticism and abuse on the job.

SEATTLE — Nurses in Seattle and nationwide feel pushed to the limit caring for patients during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. Adding to the burnout is that nurses are often on the frontline of the public’s frustrations. 

“At first, there was a feeling of camaraderie and people really applauding health care workers,” said Sam Conley, a neuroscience acute care nurse at Harborview Medical Center in Seattle. 

Conley, also a member of the SEIU Healthcare 1199NW nurses union, sat down with KING 5 to voice her concerns.

“We felt people really get what we’re going through and they understand we are making a sacrifice,” she said.

But nearly two years after the pandemic began, amid a new period of vaccine requirements, mask enforcement and staff shortages, Conley said the strains of the job have been as difficult as ever.

“It’s the verbal and physical abuse from visitors and family members that’s been some of the most challenging aspects of providing care,” Conley said. “I’ll have to ask visitors several times, ‘Hey, I need you to put that mask back on.'”

She understands dealing with difficult patients may come with the job, but she never imagined part of it would be enforcing mask-wearing in the hospital.

“What nurses are experiencing now is really different from what we ever had before,” Conley said.

>> Download KING 5’s Roku and Amazon Fire apps to watch live newscasts and video on demand

In a Washington State Hospital Association briefing Monday, Jon Hersen, president of Salmon Creek Medical Center at Legacy Health in Vancouver, Washington, said staff there are also being pushed to the limit.

“We’re seeing extreme burnout and fatigue from our clinical staff and support staff,” Hersen said in the call. “Many are now choosing to leave the profession.”

Conley said she has also heard from her colleagues who desire to leave the job because of burnout.

“A lot of my coworkers are leaving and if they haven’t left yet, they’re just waiting for the opportunity. People that would never have normally left, who were lifers,” Conley said.

The Washington State Nurses Association has noticed the issue too, calling it an “unprecedented crisis” with staff shortages reaching critical levels.

“Amid a fifth wave of COVID, spurred on by the delta variant, and hospi­tals overflowing with patients who need critical care, our state health care workers continue to heroically perform their jobs a year-and-a-half into this pandemic,” WSNA cabinet chair Julia Barcott said in the release.

The state recently looked at solutions to keep staff on the job and keep them safe. 

State legislation that went into effect last year expands workplace violence training to include more health care settings. It also requires volunteers and security staff to receive the training and includes additional education on violence prevention.

Conley said she received the training and is grateful for it.

“Now that it’s legally required, that training is actually getting to people in a real way,” she said.

But she adds staffing issues may become a serious problem.

“I’m just really worried that we’re now going to get in a cycle where nurses are burned out and they leave and it’s time to play catch up,” Conley said.

RELATED: COVID-19 deaths rising in Washington as hospitalizations hit all-time high

For a daily roundup of everything you need to know for across western Washingtonsign up for our 5 Things to Know email newsletter.