- Healthcare workers say they’re being shunned now by their community, family, and friends due to fears they may have the novel coronavirus.
- New surveys indicate the public is concerned about contracting the coronavirus from healthcare workers.
- Experts say the situation takes a toll on the mental health of many healthcare workers.
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Dr. Monalisa Muchatuta, an emergency room physician in New York City who’s been on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic since it began, has never been one to keep her feelings inside.
But she knows that in her profession, discretion is sometimes the better part of valor.
Muchatuta told Healthline that she is troubled by what she believes is a shifting public attitude toward her and her fellow healthcare workers.
“In the past few months, I’ve been isolated from family events, left out of playdates with friends with children, and much more, all because of my job,” said Muchatuta, who is a clinical assistant professor at SUNY Downstate Medical Center.
She was recently denied entry to her gym. She also had made plans to get together with a close friend who was visiting, only to see her friend back out at the last minute.
Muchatuta says an increasing number of people are simply afraid of being near her due to concerns she may have contracted the novel coronavirus through her work.
“It’s hurtful, especially because we know that healthcare workers are not the people who are spreading the virus,” said Muchatuta, who in April created a YouTube video in the emergency room to inform the public of what it was like during the height of the first COVID-19 wave.
In the video, she also urged young people to stay home because they could be spreading the virus to others and may end up getting sick themselves.
“Some of the people who called us heroes back then now seem to think it’s OK to ostracize us and talk about putting us in a colony,” she said.
Dr. Jodi Richardson, an emergency room physician at Howard University Hospital in Washington, D.C., who’s also been on the COVID-19 front lines, agrees with Muchatuta.
“It does feel different this time around. People are avoiding me,” said Richardson, whose sister will not allow Richardson to visit her or her family.
“It’s a slap in the face as a frontline person,” she told Healthline. “It feels like my life is becoming defined by this.”
A new study on public attitudes toward healthcare workers during the pandemic from the Journal of Anxiety Disorders published last week.
The research confirms Richardson and Muchatuta’s suspicions.
Data was collected from a random sample of adults — 1,716 from the United States and 1,835 from Canada.
Some of the findings:
- More than a quarter of respondents said healthcare workers should have “severe restrictions” placed on their freedoms, such as being kept in isolation from their communities, families, and friends.
- More than a third of respondents said they avoid healthcare workers for fear of infection.
- Participation in support of healthcare workers, such as evening clapping and cheering, was “unrelated to stigmatizing attitudes.”
- People who stigmatized healthcare workers in the study also tended to avoid other people, avoid drugstores and supermarkets, and avoid leaving their homes.
- And while most people still support doctors and nurses, researchers said that “fear and avoidance of healthcare workers is an under-recognized but evidently serious and widespread” problem during the pandemic.
Perhaps the most significant takeaway from this study is the researchers’ statement that many respondents “grossly exaggerated” the odds that healthcare workers are carriers of the virus.
Almost a third of respondents believed that healthcare workers are likely to have COVID-19.
But that is not the case.
As the study authors point out, “This stands in marked contrast to the research on COVID-19, which shows that the typical healthcare worker is highly unlikely to be infected with SARSCoV2.”
Dr. Sandip Patel, an oncologist and associate professor at UC San Diego Health who specializes in cancer immunotherapy and clinical trials, read the healthcare worker study and takes issue with some of the opinions of the respondents.
“Everyone is freaking out about hospitals, but there have been almost no superspreader events at hospitals. The superspreader events are typically indoors where people are singing or not wearing masks,” Patel told Healthline.
If you look at the data, he added, “It really hasn’t been coming from the healthcare environment.”
Dr. Shannon Sovndal, an emergency room physician, author of the book “Fragile,” and host of the “Match on a Fire: Medicine and More” podcast, says of the study’s respondents: “It’s like saying, ‘Thanks for what you do, now get away from me.’”
Sovndal, who sees people with COVID-19 every day and is affiliated with several hospitals in the Boulder, Colorado, area, says doctors and nurses can get the novel coronavirus despite all efforts to be safe, but they are generally not the ones who are giving it to others.
“When I go to work, I am very well protected because of PPE [personal protective equipment],” he told Healthline. “It has been my experience that there are not a large number of healthcare workers getting infected on a regular basis, and not a lot of healthcare workers spreading the virus to others.”
Craig Carrier, the chief executive officer of IMPACT BIOTEC, a division of IMPACT Technologies & Innovations Limited, has spent more than 40 years providing healthcare, clean energy, and other humanitarian products globally.
He currently provides PPE to underserved countries such as Yemen and Ghana as well as parts of southeastern China and the United States.
He told Healthline that the healthcare worker study fails to acknowledge the fact that the majority of the world’s citizens “respect and view the medical professionals as genuine heroes. They are the army that is protecting all of us globally from the pandemic.”
Carrier says the fear and stigma attached to healthcare workers is unwarranted.
“These professionals know how to protect themselves with PPE both on the front lines of this global war on the pandemic and afterward at home with their families and children,” he said.
Carrier says the education initiatives required now internationally to inform the public about how PPE can keep you safe are “not unlike the information about the recycling of household waste many years ago in the USA and Canada.”
Carrier has seen how the fear and stigma against doctors and nurses can affect the world.
“One hematologist I know committed suicide because he was so depressed that he felt like a leprosy victim who was shunned, defamed, and declared an outcast in a small town near me,” Carrier said.
“The one thing he feared most was infecting his wife and children, so he wanted to eliminate that possibility by taking his life,” Carrier added. “All these professionals should be held in the highest esteem, the same as any medal winner in wars and provided the same recognition as any hero.”
Tarik Kahn, MSN, RN, a family nurse practitioner who’s completing his PhD in nursing research next year from the University of Pennsylvania, has been working with patients with COVID-19 since the pandemic began.
He’s disappointed in the study’s findings and is “very concerned” about the effect these kinds of surveys can have on the mental health of his fellow healthcare workers.
“It is discouraging to read things like this study,” Kahn told Healthline.
“You hate to see it, because nurses and doctors do so much and deserve so much in return,” he said. “These are the people that run to the fire. That is what we do. As healthcare providers, we will do anything for our patients.”
Kahn wants the public to feel secure in the knowledge that PPE is effective and that they have nothing to be afraid of.
“PPE works. Healthcare workers are generally more careful than the general public when it comes to protecting themselves and others,” he said. “We teach this. The nurses are actually the educators. We educate others about this, and we practice what we preach.”
Kahn says he wanted to be on the front lines from the beginning.
And that hasn’t changed.
“You see awful things, but you have to keep going,” he said. “A lot of nurses internalize it because who will do the job if we don’t?”
Sovndal points out that neither doctors nor nurses have many places to go to share their thoughts about mental health, even now when anxiety, depression, and other issues are affecting almost everyone.
No matter how much they may be struggling.
“Doctors are taught in medical school and throughout the process to just do the job, work long hours, and not complain,” says Sovndal.
Richardson strongly agrees.
“Yes, as physicians we are told all the time to just ‘suck it up,’” she said. “It is the nature and culture of healthcare workers to suck it up.”
“You deal with the discomfort and operate on little rest no matter what your mood is,” she added. “Even if you are feeling stressed, you commiserate with colleagues, but you are expected to compartmentalize and not complain.
A new poll from the American College of Emergency Physicians (ACEP) and Morning Consult addresses the issue of mental health among physicians during this pandemic.
The poll finds that despite the toll that serving on the front lines of COVID-19 is having on emergency physicians, many do not seek any kind of mental health treatment.
The poll found that nearly 90 percent of emergency physicians say they are more stressed since the start of COVID-19. Additionally, 72 percent report experiencing more professional burnout.
As for the causes of their stress or burnout, 4 in 5 emergency physicians cite concerns about family, friends, and personal health, while 3 in 5 cite job or financial security concerns and lack of personal protective equipment.
Despite the availability of services, the survey found that nearly half (45 percent) of emergency physicians are not comfortable seeking mental health treatment.
The poll also shows that stigma in the workplace (73 percent) and fear of professional reprisal (57 percent) are the primary barriers preventing emergency physicians from getting the mental healthcare they need.
As a result, more than a quarter (27 percent) of emergency physicians have avoided seeking mental health treatment out of concern for their job.
In a press statement, Dr. Mark Rosenberg, MBA, and president of ACEP, said the poll “adds real urgency to the need for emergency physicians, policymakers, and clinical leaders to work together to change our approach to mental health.”
He added, “Every health care professional, especially those on the frontlines of the pandemic, should be able to address their mental health without fear of judgement or consequences.”
Sovndal says that for healthcare workers, seeking assistance for a mental health issue can ironically make the situation worse.
In his book, he writes that for emergency room physicians, specifically, it can be a problem to report any mental health issues.
It is similar to the situation in the military, where troops as well as veterans often refuse to disclose that they have any symptoms of post-traumatic stress (PTSD) because of the stigma that still exists.
Healthcare workers have to deal with something similar, Sovndal says.
“They just do not want to admit they have a problem. And sadly, the problem is far worse now because of COVID,” Sovndal said. “On every job application in my profession, there are questions such as: ‘Have you sought help for mental health issues or substance abuse?’ The fact that they are asking that on every application, it is in your brain.”
Sovndal says that just creates even more stress.
“So you just don’t check that box because you’re worried about your career,” he said. “And you know that you are not necessarily going to be protected if you do speak out.”
Especially those with one or more pre-existing conditions.
There was a time when some healthcare workers were short on PPE and forced to use garbage bags as protection or wear the same mask for days.
But things have changed for the better because of increased PPE supply and more understanding among all healthcare workers about the virus.
However, Michelle Mahon, RN, assistant director of nursing practice at National Nurses United union, told the New York Times this week that nurses still “need more testing.”
She also said that in some hospitals, the supply of protective gear remains uneven.
And things could, of course, get worse for those on the front lines as we enter the cool and cold fall and winter months.