They held the hands of people dying alone in hospitals and nursing homes. They cleaned and disinfected rooms even as infection-control guidelines for a novel virus were still being developed. They isolated from their families for fear of bringing COVID-19 into their homes.
From doctors and nurses to respiratory therapists and anesthesiologists to environmental service workers and administrators, healthcare workers have, as so many across the nation proclaimed, been the true heroes of this pandemic.
This year, Modern Healthcare is reserving the top spot on its annual 100 Most Influential People in Healthcare list for the nation’s healthcare workers, those people who risk their lives daily to care for strangers, friends and loved ones.
Workers have gone on strike, organized and spoken out publicly about the risks they’re taking and the sacrifices they’re making, all while facing furloughs and pay cuts from employers. To protect themselves and those they care for, they have collectively used their voices to demand better protections, better staffing ratios and hazard pay, changes they hope will outlast the pandemic.
The COVID-19 death toll in the U.S. is more than 270,000 and climbing daily, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And public health experts expect counts to continue skyrocketing as people gather in large groups and travel during the holidays. Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, last week predicted a “surge upon a surge.”
The federal government estimated that, as of Dec. 2, 247,152 healthcare providers have tested positive for COVID-19, 864 of whom have died, although that data is incomplete. As of the same date, Kaiser Health News and The Guardian have recorded at least 1,425 U.S. healthcare workers who have died from COVID-19.
Dealing with such levels of death and serious illness is both isolating and physically and mentally draining, said Keith Renshaw, a professor and chair of psychology at George Mason University.
“If you’re in a high-stress environment at your job and you’re doing that day in and day out, having physiological reactions to everything around you, it starts to exhaust you,” Renshaw said.
Meanwhile, normal support systems and leisure activities have been stripped from workers because of the pandemic, leaving them without traditional outlets for stress relief, he added.
Dr. Hal Paz, CEO of Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, characterized the work healthcare staff have done during the pandemic as “nothing short of exceptional.”
“Essential workers, I think, are clearly just going above and beyond doing their jobs, which is really, really important,” said Paz, who oversees 27,000 employees at the teaching hospital. “But what is remarkable is just the level of compassion that I’ve seen our clinicians show over and over and over again for patients that are critically ill in the ICU, to help them, to help their families deal with these circumstances.”
Workers have not only shouldered caring for patients and residents but have stepped in as surrogates for support systems while visitation has been limited or restricted to prevent the spread of the virus.
“These professionals have had to serve as family members,” said Nancy Foster, the American Hospital Association’s vice president of quality and patient safety policy. “They sit there with the patient to help them use an iPad or another device” to connect with their families. “They hold their hands when they’re really in pain or suffering. All of that, they do with humility and love as a substitute for family, and that is something extraordinary.”