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By Roger Chesley
We have broken our frontline health-care workers during the pandemic, mostly because of the intransigence of too many Americans. A microcosm of those results can be seen in the death of Alva Daniels, a respiratory therapist from Roanoke.
You should read The Washington Post’s recent feature on Daniels. He was just 38 when he died by suicide in August, even before the current omicron strain emerged. He’d weep after his COVID-19 patients died. Daniels couldn’t cope with the continuing carnage.
“I don’t know if I can do this. We’re losing three to five people a shift,” Daniels told a friend.
“Things are getting bad again and we don’t have enough people to fight it,” he told his wife.
Several factors can cause suicide, and The Post cited studies that doctors and nurses “were already almost twice as likely to die by suicide as people in other professions, even before the pandemic began.” However, the fact no end to coronavirus is on the horizon, and too many people still refuse to get the shots — thus reducing the number of deaths and serious infections — add to the despair health-care workers face.
The continuing tumult during the nearly two-year-old pandemic has led health-care workers to leave the profession in massive numbers. That’s ominous for all of us.
Trisha Anest is secretary-treasurer of the Virginia College of Emergency Physicians and an emergency room doctor in Newport News. She told me Wednesday many ER physicians, nurses and technicians “are suffering from tremendous moral injury” because of the refusal to get vaccines and the fact the latest surge could’ve been prevented.
The Atlantic reported in November, citing federal statistics, that the health-care sector has lost nearly half a million workers since February 2020. Morning Consult, a survey research firm, said late last year that 18 percent of health-care workers have quit their jobs during the pandemic and 12 percent have been laid off.
Those numbers portend a harrowing future for our health system. People who depend on doctors, nurses, anesthesiologists, technicians and others to survive face huge risks. It’s hard to quantify, but much of the disgust and disrespect health-care workers feel is because of the resistance by Americans to get the vaccines and do what medical experts say is needed to end the coronavirus scourge.
An intensive care nurse in The Atlantic article, for example, spoke of hand-pumping a ventilation bag on a patient for 40 minutes straight so loved ones could say goodbye. Weeks later, the family contacted the hospital questioning whether the staff had done everything it could to save the patient. “It was like being punched in the gut,” the nurse said.
Alarming developments involving COVID-19 have arisen across Virginia over the past several days:
• Chesapeake police have been investigating social media threats against School Board members, though a police spokesman told me Tuesday no one has been arrested and no “credible” complaints had been found. The elected school officials recently voted to reinstate a mask mandate to help fight the disease – in other words, to protect students, teachers and staff. “We’re all escorted with police now, which is ludicrous,” board member Patricia King told The Virginian-Pilot. “Who would have ever thought that you serve on a school board and you would be in fear of your safety and your life?”
• Sentara Healthcare postponed non-emergency surgeries starting Jan. 10. “The current strain on all health care facilities is undeniable,” said Mike Gentry, Sentara Healthcare executive vice president and chief operating officer. “We must balance the urgent need to care for large numbers of COVID-19 patients with what is being asked of our dedicated staff.” A Sentara spokesman told me Wednesday no end date for the moratorium has been scheduled.
• The number of people hospitalized with COVID-19 in the commonwealth hit an all-time, single-day high of 3,329 last week, my colleague Kate Masters reported. The total surpassed the previous peak in January 2021. Most of those in the hospital were unvaccinated.
• Mary Washington Hospital set up an emergency field hospital in its parking garage in Fredericksburg to handle an “unprecedented surge” of COVID patients.
• Gov. Ralph Northam issued a limited emergency order to give hospitals and public-health agencies more resources to handle the surge. Yet Gov.-elect Glenn Youngkin, who takes office Saturday, campaigned against vaccine and mask mandates; he said Virginia will join the legal fight against President Joe Biden’s federal vaccine mandate for large employers. With COVID-19 numbers rising, it’s an odd time for such a politicized move.
People like Anest, the ER physician, know firsthand the trauma patients face and how the pandemic continues to overwhelm and demoralize medical workers.
She’s seeing 200 percent of the patients who normally come to the ER, in part because the omicron variant is much more transmissible. “The sheer amount of patients is so much higher than other surges,” Anest said, even though the severity of this version isn’t as bad as others. Yet COVID patients are still taking up resources and space that limits help for non-COVID sufferers.
“I have had critically ill patients that aren’t vaccinated, put them on life support and intubated them,” Anest said. “They might not speak to families again. … We didn’t think we’d have to see that two years into this, when we have the tools in the arsenal.”
I asked her what Virginians could do.
Get the vaccine, she urged. If you can take a booster shot, do it. Get your children age 5 and older vaccinated. Family members of COVID patients should stop threatening medical professionals, something she’s witnessed.
“Be thoughtful and considerate of those around you by wearing a mask,” especially to help those who can’t take a vaccine or who may be immunocompromised. “Until this surge is over,” Anest urged, “please avoid large gatherings that aren’t absolutely essential.”
She didn’t say it, but I will: Stop being selfish. Follow the guidance the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other health care officials have recommended.
Do it for our exhausted health care workers, if not for yourselves. They deserve better.
Roger Chesley is a columnist for the Virginia Mercury, a sibling site of the Pennsylvania Capital-Star, where this column first appeared.
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