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Covid-19 patients at this hospital are dying 'at a rate we've never seen die before' -- and it's taking a toll on health care workers

(CNN) Nurse Katie Sefton never thought Covid-19 could get this bad -- and certainly not this late in the pandemic.

"I was really hoping that we'd (all) get vaccinated and things would be back to normal," said Sefton, an assistant manager at Sparrow Hospital in Lansing, Michigan.

But this week Michigan had more patients hospitalized for Covid-19 than ever before. Covid-19 hospitalizations jumped 88% in the past month, according to the Michigan Health & Hospital Association.

"We have more patients than we've ever had at any point, and we're seeing more people die at a rate we've never seen die before," said Jim Dover, president and CEO of Sparrow Health System.

Katie Sefton said she's now seeing younger patients die from Covid-19.

"Since January, we've had about 289 deaths; 75% are unvaccinated people," Dover said. "And the very few (vaccinated people) who passed away all were more than 6 months out from their shot. So we've not had a single person who has had a booster shot die from Covid."

Among the new Covid-19 victims, Sefton said she's noticed a disturbing trend.

"We're seeing a lot of younger people. And I think that is a bit challenging," said Sefton, a 20-year nursing veteran.

She recalls helping the family of a young adult say goodbye to their loved one.

"It was an awful night," she said. "That was one of the days I went home and just cried."

'We haven't peaked yet'

It's not just Michigan that's facing an arduous winter with Covid-19. Nationwide, Covid-19 hospitalizations have increased 40% compared to a month ago, according to data from the US Department of Health and Human Services.

This is the first holiday season with the relentless spread of the Delta variant -- a strain far more contagious than those Americans faced last winter.

"We keep talking about how we haven't peaked yet," Sefton said.

Health experts say the best protection against Delta is to get vaccinated and boosted. But as of Thursday, only about 64.3% of eligible Americans had been fully vaccinated, and less than a third of those eligible for boosters have gotten one.

Sparrow Hospital nurse Danielle Williams said the vast majority of her Covid-19 patients are not vaccinated -- and had no idea they could get pummeled so hard by Covid-19.

"Before they walked in the door, they had a normal life. They were healthy people. They were out celebrating Thanksgiving," Williams said. "And now they're here, with a mask on their face, teary eyed, staring at me, asking me if they're going to live or not."

'The next few weeks look hard'

Dover said he's saddened but not surprised that his state is getting walloped with Covid-19.

"Michigan is not one of the highest vaccination states in the nation. So it continues to have variant after variant grow and expand across the state," he said.

"The next few weeks look hard. We're over 100% capacity right now," Dover said.

"Most hospitals and health systems in the state of Michigan have gone to code-red triage, which means they won't accept transfers. And as we go into the holidays, if the current growth rate that we're at today, we would expect to see 200 in-patient Covid patients by the end of the month -- on a daily basis."

And that would mean "absolutely stretching us to the breaking point," Dover said.

"We've already discontinued in-patient elective surgeries," he said. "In order to create capacity, we took our post-anesthesia recovery care unit and converted it into another critical care unit."

'There's a lot of frustration'

Nurse Leah Rasch is exhausted. She's worked with Covid-19 patients since the beginning of the pandemic and was stunned to see so many people still unvaccinated enter the Covid unit.

"I did not think we'd be here. I truly thought that people would be vaccinated," the Sparrow Hospital nurse said.

"I don't remember the last time we did not have a full Covid floor."

The relentless onslaught of Covid-19 patients has impacted Rasch's own health.

"There's a lot of frustration," she said. "The other day, I had my first panic attack ... I drove to work and I couldn't get out of the car."

'We need everybody to get vaccinated'

Dover said many people have asked how they can support health care workers.

"If you really want to support your staff, and you really want to support health care heroes, get vaccinated," he said. "It's not political. We need everybody to get vaccinated."

He's also urging those who previously had Covid-19 to get vaccinated, as some people can get reinfected.

"My daughter's a good example. She had Covid twice before she was eligible for a vaccine," Dover said.

"She still got a vaccine because we know that if you don't get the vaccine, just merely having contracted Covid is not enough to protect you from getting it again. And I know that from personal experience."

And those who are unvaccinated shouldn't underestimate the pandemic right now, Dover said.

"The problem is, it's not over yet. I don't know if people realize just how critical it still is," he said.

"But they do realize it when they come into the ER, and they have to wait three days for a bed. And at that point, they realize it."

CNN's Deidre McPhillips contributed to this report.