COVID returns and has a powerful impact on healthcare workers

Credit to Nicolas Bartos (via pexels.com)

Uncertainty continues to spread across the United States as fear again takes over households. As the COVID-19 virus has swept the nation, then receded, then returned during the past year the federal Centers for Disease Control has made constant shifts in policies and mandates that have caused public confusion.

Hospital workers have been particularly affected by the CDC’s continuous change in its regulations.

“The pandemic has really pushed many healthcare workers to the brink,” U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy said. “They’re reporting high levels of depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder and many are talking about dropping out of the workforce as they see wave after wave after wave.”

Fortunately, earlier this year, the distribution of vaccines from three key manufacturers: Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson, helped decrease the number of COVID cases. As the world celebrated the return of normal life, though, one vital factor remained unchanged: the pandemic’s effect on mental health. How were doctors and others impacted after such a traumatic experience? 

A fundamental statistical study, carried out by the Washington Post and the Kaiser Family Foundation, discovered that “6 in 10 healthcare workers suffered mentally from coronavirus worries and concerns.” Also, “62% of US healthcare workers were experiencing stress from working during the pandemic, which had harmed their mental health, with 30% of these workers considering leaving the profession.” 

Florida has been one of the places most affected by the pandemic. The state has seen a 37% increase in COVID rates and a 61% increase in hospitalizations over the last 14 days. Healthcare workers have been in the frontline of the pandemic, and their mental health has been strongly affected by the effects of the lingering virus.

Vienna del Sol, a critical care nurse working at Baptist Health South Florida, feared claustrophobic settings and suffered PTSD. Her daily work environment was considered one of “high stress.”

“Dealing with trying to alleviate the symptoms of this particular virus took some time in figuring out which protocol or antibiotic worked best,” she said.

Intubating and carrying patients to their hospital beds proved to be both physically and emotionally draining to medical workers. Over 75% of them, reported an overall feeling of exhaustion and burnout from their job (mhanational.org). 

Patients were admitted every day into hospitals at an alarming rate. Vienna’s Baptist hospital intensive care unit had 40 beds that were all fully occupied. And since families were not allowed to be in the same room as the infected patient, she would comfort those taking their final breaths by holding their hands. 

She also reached patients’ families on FaceTime, which was a  contrast to having family in person. 

With an abundance of misinformation being spread through various social media and news platforms, it’s easy to become confused and doubtful.

Skepticism is a major issue when it comes to COVID-19.

On July 21, 2020, a survey highlighted that 31% of respondents believed the number of Americans dying from COVID-19 was smaller than what public data was portraying at the time.

Such a serious situation was both distressing and discouraging for medical workers, who put their safety and their lives on the line for others.

A concern for medical workers is falling ill and infecting those around them. With this comes potential guilt, something Dr. John Lopera, an internal medicine physician at Bethesda Hospital, experienced a lot. 

“Two people, a friend of mine and a close neighbor that I treated ended up in the hospital,” he said.

A wave of anxiety washed over him as both friends were nearly intubated and treated under critical conditions. Five of his patients also passed away once they were admitted into the hospital. 

Guilt and depression were a byproduct of the emotional connections these doctors made with their patients as time ran out.

In order to calm their nerves, doctors and nurses stayed by patients’ bedsides for as long as possible and held their hands. This was especially crucial since family visits were not allowed.

Dr. Ricardo Queiro, a doctor who works in pediatric intensive care at Baptist Health Kendall, witnessed a multitude of deaths. He had emotional conversations with almost all of his patients, and some of them died 4 to 5 days later. This was and still is a difficult and impactful time for him, one of anxiety and stress.

Comparing his work environment to a battlefield, Dr. Queiro is one of many medical workers who experienced a fear of mortality. 

“The majority of us who worked with COVID patients got very sick and couldn’t return to work for days,” he said. “It was like being on the frontline of a battlefield and watching people close to you die, hoping it doesn’t happen to you or your loved ones.”

Although tensions may seem to have eased, a new variant of the virus, Delta, has appeared.

 “We are seeing spikes in cases driven by the Delta variant where unvaccinated numbers are high,” Dr. Murthy said. “It won’t be fully under control unless we have a fully global response.” 

Dan Leiferman is a junior at Florida International University who is majoring in communications. Leiferman's passions include sports, writing, and any form of creative expression.