In the past year, nurse Ashley Blevins says she has witnessed unparalleled violence at her hospital in Branson, Mo., where Cox Medical Center staffers have been cursed at, spit on and even beaten by patients.

“In the emergency department … our patients are becoming increasingly violent lately,” Blevins told KYTV.

According to the hospital, violence against its staff increased dramatically from 2019 to 2020, “with the pandemic greatly compounding the issue.” The number of assaults increased from 40 to 123, while reported injuries jumped from 17 to 78, the hospital said.

In response to the violence, up to 400 staff members will soon have panic buttons attached to their badges, the hospital said. If a staff member is having trouble with a patient, they can press a button that immediately alerts security guards and activates a tracking system. If a staffer is being assaulted in a patient’s room, pushing the button will activate a “custom light” outside the room, the hospital explained.

“It’s nice we have the chance to press our button and security knows exactly where we are, and if we end up having to chase a patient down they’ll know where our last location is,” Blevins told the station.

The uptick in violence is not limited to the Missouri medical center. By the fall of 2020, several months into the pandemic, U.S. hospital workers described a noticeable increase in workplace violence as they enforced masking requirements and strict visitor rules, WebMD reported. A November survey of 15,000 registered nurses by National Nurses United, a major nurses union, found that approximately 20 percent of respondents said they were experiencing increased violence on the job.

Yet workplace violence against health-care professionals was a growing concern before the pandemic. In 2018, medical workers accounted for 73 percent of all nonfatal workplace injuries arising from violence, according to data collected by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. At that time, workers in health-care and social service professions were five times as likely to suffer a violent injury than those in other industries, the bureau reported.

The Cox Medical Center in Branson said the numbers have grown worse during the pandemic, with assaults on its staff tripling in the past year.

This summer, hospitals in southwestern Missouri have been under particular strain as they have experienced a surge in coronavirus cases, driven by unvaccinated residents and the highly transmissible delta variant. In late June, a CoxHealth hospital in Springfield — about 40 miles north of Branson — was forced to turn some patients away as the surge intensified.

Blevins, the nurse in Branson, said her hospital is facing large crowds and wait times. “And that’s frustrating on the patients, that’s frustrating on us, and I think that’s increasing a lot of the violence,” she said.

She and her colleagues hope the panic buttons will make a difference.

“To see that these numbers are doubling, tripling, and continuing to go up, especially the physical ... It’s very unnerving,” Angie Smith, who handles hospital safety, told KOLR.