Health care workers need policy changes, not just applause

While the COVID-19 pandemic has been straining our health care system, public support for health care workers has never been greater. Every evening for a few minutes, neighborhoods across the country erupt into enthusiastic cheering and instrumental noise as people show their support for us. My social media feed has erupted with posts, artwork, and hashtags praising us #healthcareheroes and #frontlinecovid19.

However, if you really want to support your “health care heroes,” advocate for policies that help protect us, our families, and our patients.

Inspirational cheers and Facebook posts do not protect us from contracting COVID-19 at work due to insufficient personal protective equipment (PPE), such as N95 masks or powered air-purifying respirators (PAPR), nor does it protect us from getting fired or disciplined if we speak out against unsafe conditions. Free shoes from Crocs do not prevent us from joining the over 100 health care workers who have died on the “frontlines” or the thousands who have gotten sick with COVID-19.

Calling us “heroes” does not change the fact that health care workers are getting assaulted outside of work because of COVID-19:

A stranger shot at a nurse in Oklahoma, possibly because of her profession.

A physician was punched in the face while she was shopping at a grocery store.

Most recently, nurses who were recently praised for their response to the COVID-19 pandemic finished their overnight shift to find their car tires slashed.

Hashtags did not stop a man from harassing me on the street right outside my hospital.

Some of us have even had our children taken away because of our “heroic” jobs, even though health care workers are taking extraordinary precautions to keep our families safe, and even though this contradicts advice from the American College of Emergency Physicians.

It takes many more years of rigorous training and education to produce a health care worker than a ventilator:

A registered nurse (RN) must complete a 2 to 3-year associate or a 4-year bachelor degree program, with a median debt of $40,000-$50,000.

To become a nurse practitioner (NP) or advanced practice registered nurse (APRN), he or she must return to school for at least another 1 to 3 years.

A physician assistant (PA) must complete a 27-month master’s program after college, with a median debt of $122,500.

Physicians or doctors have the longest training path: after completing a 4-year bachelor program followed by a 4-year doctorate program, graduating with an average debt of $251,600, they must work as a resident physician for 60 to 80 hours per week (or more during the pandemic) for 3 to 7 years, making around $15/hour, followed by optional years of additional subspecialty training as a fellow, before becoming an attending physician.

In addition to fears about our health and our family’s health, we are scared that we will leave our families crippled with this debt if we were to die “on the frontlines.” Despite our credentials and our status as essential workers, under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and. Economic Security Act (CARES) Act, many of us (myself included) earn less than we would if we were unemployed. Instead of hazard pay, many health care workers are being rewarded with pay cuts or furloughs, while hospital executives continue to make millions in bonuses.

Not only is this mistreatment of health care workers morally wrong, but it also discourages individuals from working in health care at a time when we are most necessary. An internal medicine doctor had to stop seeing patients in person in order to retain custody of her child. How many more health care workers must be forced out? We should not be forced to choose between our children, our safety, and our patients.

Practice social distancing and tell your elected officials to support bills like the Student Debt Forgiveness for Frontline Health Care Workers Act or the COVID-19 Pandemic Physician Protection Act (CPPPA), which advocates for personal protective equipment (PPE), mental health coverage, and student loan debt forgiveness for all health care workers, and creates provisions for our families if we die or become disabled during this pandemic. Sign and share the petition to prevent single frontline workers from having their children taken away. Support a bill that protects the families of health care workers who die fighting COVID-19 against deportation.

We are here for you. Will you stand up for us?

Yuemei (Amy) Zhang is an anesthesiologist and can be reached on Twitter @yzhangmd1.

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