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HUNTSVILLE, Ala. – In March, News 19 shared the stories of nurses who worked on the front lines of the pandemic. At that time there seemed to be a light at the end of the tunnel, cases were going down and the vaccine was becoming more available.

But that has changed as the contagious Delta variant has spread at an unprecedented rate across Alabama.

Medical staff, still exhausted from the state’s January peak in cases, are facing the prospect of having to relive the most difficult year of their careers.

News 19 checked back in with a couple of those nurses. As the first COVID-19 vaccines were distributed, the medical community buzzed with a sense of optimism.

“We saw the light at the end of the tunnel. We had several days when we didn’t even have any COVID patients so we’re like ok we made it through this,” said Athens-Limestone nurse, Donna Abernathy.

Now cases are climbing and the number of hospitalized COVID patients is raising.

“It’s just a big shock,” Abernathy added.

It’s not the happy ending we were hoping for.

Jennifer Williams, a nurse at Huntsville Hospital, said, “I wish we were just tired. I think we’re exhausted.”

Abernathy told News 19, “It’s the struggle of knowing what we went through for a whole year and thinking everything was better the last few months and now seeing that it’s starting back up like it was and we’re scared. We don’t know is it going to get like it was before. Is it going to get worse?” Abernathy told News 19.

That’s not the only tough question

“What do we do, what’s our next step when our ICUs are full?” Williams asked.

She also added, “We’re fearful that since we see a resurgence over the past couple of weeks and we have folks in the ICU now on the ventilator. It’s only a matter of time before we start seeing the death toll rise.”

It’s playing out in front of them.

Williams said, “We’re seeing entire families come in sick because of the contagious nature of the delta variant. Whereas before we would see one positive and quite possibly the rest of the family would not be ill.”

The vast majority of COVID patients walking through hospital doors are not vaccinated.

“The unvaccinated population comes in much sicker and they escalate to a critical state much quicker,” added Williams.

Nurse Donna Abernathy said, “We’ve had patients that have come in through here that were anti vaccine and with covid and nearly passed and now they’re out there, get the vaccine, get the vaccine, but for some of them its too late. You know, they’ve lost loved ones or they lost their own life.”

The virus isn’t the only thing that’s changed. So have the challenges

“The staff is very emotional. They have a lot of concerns you know, they just don’t…a lot of them don’t know if they can go through it again,” Abernathy said.

According to the President of the Alabama Hospital Association, models show the number of COVID-19 inpatients could increase to more than double the 3,100 patients hospitalized during the January surge. And there are fewer nurses now than there were then.

Abernathy said, “That’s our concern and fear is if we continue, this virus continues to take over again we’re not going to have the staff to adequately care for the patients.”

Nurses say there are two ways to help steer the community in a different direction.

“From my point of view, it is time for me to put my mask back on,” said nurse Williams.

Donna Abernathy’s message to the community was simple, “Please research the vaccine. It works. Think about it and get the vaccine.”

According to the latest data from the Alabama Department of Public Health, there are 2,441 COVID-19 inpatients across the state.