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OpinionEditorial

A heavy burden for health care workers

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Sometimes the burden lands as a forgotten detail on routine rounds. Or snapping at a co-worker after days working a COVID-19 unit. Or just a feeling of numbness, a dark cloud that’s impossible to shake. This is the fallout from the tremendous stress that health care workers and first responders have shouldered all through this pandemic. Their mental health burden is one that must be eased.

Hundreds of hospital staff on Long Island contracted COVID-19 last year and struggled with short and long-term ailments, but the stress of caring for patients went beyond the physical. Recently, the Johns Hopkins Center for Health, in collaboration with New York City Health + Hospitals, debriefed intensive care unit directors and physicians in the region about their harrowing year. The raw reports are searing, with descriptions of clinicians unprepared for witnessing "large numbers of patients dying in unfamiliar settings and in unfamiliar ways."

The increased number of patients individual nurses had to care for were overwhelming. Staff with little experience in ICUs struggled with the trauma.

"I see my colleagues; they are not the same people that they were before," one participant said.

The burden is not over. New York still has busy ICUs, and staffers are still caring for patients for whom little can sometimes be done. Underscoring the challenge, a hospital official told the editorial board about a pregnant COVID-19 patient who died recently in a Northwell Health hospital despite staffers’ ministrations.

Hospitals in the region have made efforts to mitigate the stress and PTSD of front-line staff. They have dispatched chaplains and mental health professionals, posting inspirational messages, and more. Stony Brook, for example, set up Microsoft Team channels for wellness information and mindfulness practices, and turned a section of the hospital into an employee respite area featuring beds, showers, and snacks. The New York State Nurses Association is organizing group therapy in peer support groups. Northwell Health is studying COVID-19’s impact on health care workers’ mental health.

These kinds of services, even if they may sometimes be underused, can be essential to coping and should continue, particularly in these strange times when family and colleagues can’t gather in the usual social ways. The signs outside hospitals, the pizzas delivered to ERs and even the meals cooked by neighbors during the darkest days were comforting signs of communities binding together. Now it’s also important that the recognition that health care workers have gone through hell continues. It can take the form of memorials, celebrations, enhanced pay, or small personal tributes.

But beyond all that, there must be a continued commitment to those that did all they could to keep Long Island healthy. After 9/11, the federal government created the World Trade Center (WTC) Health Program to provide no-cost medical monitoring and treatment for those directly affected by the 9/11 attacks. That includes mental health conditions from PTSD to depression. The 9/11 model is the least we can do now for a new generation of first responders.

— The editorial board

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