It’s time to give them a break.
Remember in the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, when health care workers were greeted by cheering crowds outside hospitals? When they were routinely lauded as heroes? When our appreciation for them knew no bounds?
Well, we are 18 months into the pandemic, and health care workers are still fighting on the front lines against the disease. They are working to provide comfort and treatment for those afflicted with COVID-19, working in clinics to prevent the spread of the virus, working to keep our community safe and clear a path to recovery.
That community too often has responded by ignoring common-sense measures to stem the tide of the disease and by eschewing vaccines that are necessary for making coronavirus an afterthought rather than a daily concern.
As of last week, the state was averaging about 180 new coronavirus hospitalizations a day. That marked a slight decrease from recent weeks, but officials warned that the level remains dangerously high.
COVID cases have surged over the past two months in Washington. And while Wednesday’s report from state officials noted that the number of infections has plateaued, they urged continued caution.
“We’re not sure this is going to (continue to) go in a downward direction now … but it is the first good piece of info we’ve had that we’re starting to see some downward trend,” state epidemiologist Dr. Scott Lindquist said. “We are not over this pandemic at all.”
Prior to the surge that began in July, the state was seeing about 30 COVID hospitalizations a day. Now, hospitals are close to capacity and non-COVID care is being delayed. Last week, intensive care units in Clark County were filled, and hospitals were at 97 percent capacity. In Idaho, overrun hospitals have looked for open beds in Eastern Washington hospitals.
At the forefront of all this are doctors and nurses who have been working against coronavirus since March 2020. “We feel defeated,” a Tacoma nurse told KING-TV. “You stretch yourself thin. But you’ll see people waiting in our waiting room, three, six, seven hours.”
“We walk into the hospital and it feels like the world is on fire,” a Kentucky doctor told ABC News.
Washington Gov. Jay Inslee has required COVID vaccines for health care workers. President Joe Biden has followed with a vaccine mandate for workers at facilities that receive Medicare or Medicaid reimbursements. Those mandates have led to some pushback and reports of some employees quitting, but the stress of the pandemic was evident long before vaccine requirements.
In May, professor Harry Severance of the Duke University School of Medicine said, “The extreme stressors of the COVID pandemic have served to, in many cases, more firmly solidify evolving decisions for career change by many clinicians who already were having doubts about the viability of their clinical careers.” And NBC reported this month, “Nurses are quitting or retiring, exhausted or demoralized by the crisis.”
The pandemic has exposed cracks in the U.S. health care system — including a perpetual shortage of nurses. That will require long-term efforts to overhaul the system in ways that make it more efficient, effective and fiscally sound. But in the short term, the focus should be on protecting the mental and physical health of those who protect our health.
Applauding health care workers is one way to show our appreciation. But taking measures to slow the disease would be even better.