Who will care for the caregivers?

Coronavirus is not going away anytime soon. Health care workers are already exhausted. How will the U.S. maintain a medical workforce over the long term?  There is no plan in place.

Hospitals started reorganizing and developing virus infection protocols weeks ago. Most health care workers have been in PPE for weeks. They are wearing masks, goggles, face shields, gloves for their whole shift. Many nurses work twelve-hour shifts.  Anxiety levels are high. They worry about having to wear the same masks for hours, sometimes days. They worry about family exposure.

Many areas in the United States have not reached a peak yet.  No vaccine for a couple of years. Medicines may lessen the intensity or length of illness, but they are no cure. Herd immunity is far off.  There is talk of a second wave. How will hospitals handle COVID-19 and seasonal flu all at once? Add to that elective surgeries and procedures being done again, and you have a system overwhelmed.

When hospitals try to get back to a normal routine, nurses will go back to their normal jobs. Those caring for virus patients will have less help.  Families will probably be allowed back in the hospital.  This will add stress to an overwhelmed health care system.

There is no rational national plan to deal with this. Instead, states will decide individually how they will handle it. There are widespread discrepancies.  Some states closed nothing down. Others did varying degrees of lockdown. Once the country goes off lockdown, people will begin traveling, perhaps spreading the virus to other areas.

There is no plan to vaccinate most of the country against seasonal flu. This would lessen the burden on hospitals in the fall and winter. Right now, about 50 percent of the country gets vaccinated in a normal flu season. That number needs to come way up.

Then there are economic worries about jobs and businesses, the legalities of lockdown where people stay home, and businesses have to close. In the middle of all this lies the health care worker. They are working now and will continue working while the country has these lofty debates. How long can they last?

How long can they work under these conditions? They are human, and they will burnout. They already are in many cases. There will be more depression, more suicides.  Many will quit.  Is it worth their mental and physical health to go on doing this for months?

Hospitals should be thinking about staffing proactively. If you want health care workers to work during the next two years, they will need time off for rest and relaxation.  Hire temporary nurses to give that time off and fill in for sick workers. If this has to be funded by the federal government, it should be.

There need to be mental health programs in place for workers. They should be mandatory. Too many doctors and nurses will never ask for help, never admit they need help. It is the responsibility of management to monitor the staff for difficulties and be ready with referrals as needed.

Lastly, the seasonal flu vaccine program needs to be ramped up. There is no reason the majority of the country can’t be vaccinated.

Health care workers have taken on the burden of this disease for all of us. This is the least we can do. If we don’t start thinking about all of this soon, there may not be anybody left to care for anyone.

Susan Shannon is a retired nurse who blogs at madness: tales of a retired emergency room nurse.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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