Coronavirus: Health care workers face stress that's 'in many ways equal' to combat

Adriana Belmonte
·Senior Editor
·4 min read

The coronavirus has had a devastating impact on people across the U.S., with over 600,000 confirmed cases and over 26,000 deaths.

And those who are treating COVID-19 patients are being affected as well — both physically and psychologically.

A healthcare worker in personal protective equipment (PPE) walks outside Elmhurst Hospital during the outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in the Queens borough of New York City, New York, U.S., April 6, 2020. REUTERS/Eduardo Munoz
A healthcare worker in personal protective equipment (PPE) walks outside Elmhurst Hospital during the outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in the Queens borough of New York City, New York, U.S., April 6, 2020. REUTERS/Eduardo Munoz

Dr. Michael Joyner, a professor of anesthesiology at the Mayo Clinic, described conditions at the Montefiore Medical Center in the Bronx, New York, where a colleague of his works.

“She certainly tells us some very interesting stories about a completely full hospital — ICUs really jumping up out of everywhere all over the hospitals, ventilated patients everywhere,” Joyner said recently on Yahoo Finance’s On the Move. “And the sorts of stress that group is under is really quite remarkable. Really, in many ways, equal to high-intensity combat.”

There are over 609,000 COVID-19 cases in the U.S. (Graphic: David Foster/Yahoo Finance)
There are over 609,000 COVID-19 cases in the U.S. (Graphic: David Foster/Yahoo Finance)

Facing a lack of PPE, heavy media coverage, no clear way of how to treat patients, and a heavy workload, these front line workers “are at risk of developing psychological distress and other mental health symptoms,” according to a recent study by JAMA.

The study found that these workers were more prone to developing depression, anxiety, insomnia, and other signs of distress.

According to a paper from moral injury experts Rita Brock and HC Palmer, fighting coronavirus is “strikingly similar” to medicine on the battlefield.

NEW YORK, NY - APRIL 04: Medical personnel are seen outside NYU Langone Health hospital as people applaud to show their gratitude to medical staff and essential workers working on the front lines of the coronavirus pandemic as the country works to stop the spread of COVID-19 on April 4, 2020 in New York City. The coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has spread to at least 180 countries and territories across the world, claiming over 60,000 lives and infecting hundreds of thousands more. (Photo by Noam Galai/Getty Images)
Medical personnel are seen outside NYU Langone Health hospital. (Photo by Noam Galai/Getty Images)

“Desperate and unrelenting encounters with patients, an environment of high personal risk, an unseen lethal enemy, extreme physical and mental fatigue, inadequate resources and unending accumulations of the dead."

"Seeing people die is not the issue,” one doctor told BBC. “We're trained to deal with death… The issue is giving up on people we wouldn't normally give up on."

‘I've never been so stressed as I am now’

The Bronx is among the hardest hit areas of New York City. A map released by the New York City Health Department showed at least 12 neighborhoods in that borough that have more than 306 cases.

Things are different where Joyner works in Minnesota, where there is “a lot of inherent social distancing.”

“People aren’t on the subway, and so forth, and live in mostly detached homes,” he said. “We don’t have a whole lot of concentrated poverty. And we have a lot of social cohesion here, and a lot of people who reflexively follow the rules.”

The Bronx, Queens, and Brooklyn are the boroughs hit the hardest. (Photo: NYC Health)
The Bronx, Queens, and Brooklyn are the boroughs hit the hardest. (Photo: NYC Health)

“While things have been shut down, which is causing concerns that we talked about earlier, the hospitals are not full,” Joyner added. “The ICUs are not full. And people are managing. So we’ve been very fortunate here, and it has not been a high stress situation.”

In other parts of the country — and even other parts of the world — that’s not the case.

At Elmhurst Hospital in Queens, New York, the hospital became so overrun by coronavirus patients that non-COVID patients were transferred to other locations. One doctor there described it as “apocalyptic.”

Meanwhile, in Italy, there have been 165,155 cases of coronavirus, as of April 15.

"I've never been so stressed as I am now," Dr. Andrea Alfonso, an anesthesiologist in Milan, Italy, told CBC.

The U.S. has the highest case count. (Graphic: David Foster/Yahoo Finance)
The U.S. has the highest case count. (Graphic: David Foster/Yahoo Finance)

And those numbers are much higher in the United States, which has still yet to flatten the curve in some parts of the country.

As a result, many hospitals have reached capacity and are nearing running out of ventilators, face masks, and other personal protective equipment (PPE) needed for health care workers to properly treat their patients.

Adriana is a reporter and editor for Yahoo Finance. Follow her on Twitter @adrianambells.

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