I wrote the following op-ed in late July, though never submitted it for publication: While I share an opinion, I don’t offer any solutions (and none have come to mind since then). Since President Biden has announced that the pandemic is over, now is the time to share this essay.
There is a stairwell or bathroom in every health care setting that has served as a sanctuary for medical professionals. We hold our breath and stifle our sobs while we stride towards the sanctuary; we wish to get there before anyone sees us weep. The tears fall because we learn a vulnerable patient died. A cherished colleague is leaving. A faceless health insurance reviewer has denied treatment. We run out of options to help someone because of choices an institution made. We wish we knew more, could do more.
As health care professionals, we are familiar with disappointment and sadness. Both are a part of our training and professional experience. We, however, are now experiencing enormous, unprecedented loss. Like ripples on a lake, our reactions to this loss will radiate forth and touch everyone in our communities.
The loss of life from the Covid pandemic looms over us. Over one million people in the United States have died from SARS-CoV2; we provided care to them in clinics, homeless shelters, jails, crisis centers, emergency departments, and hospitals. The individuals did not only die from Covid; others died from social consequences of the pandemic. Under- and untreated medical problems took away quality and quantity of life. Drinking, smoking, and injecting in doses too large offered relief from pain that defied description. Suicide seemed like the best choice among miserable options. We said their names and saw their faces, even as ours were covered with masks and goggles. Out of respect for patient privacy, we do not share these stories. In silence, we think of those who have died. This silence grows because we cannot find words to describe the shape, size, and saturation of our growing grief.
Even if we are able to share our sorrow, we have fewer colleagues around to listen. Diminishing clinical guidance, financial resources, and infrastructure support for health care professionals caused nearly 20% of us to either flee or flame out. (We understand why they left. We think about leaving, too.) Some retired early, others left for jobs that require less contact with distress and disease. They took with them their experience and expertise, which helped not only patients, but also us. Still others, recognizing already limited support dwindling further, took advantage of market forces and took jobs that were circumscribed in time and substantial in compensation. Health care delivery largely occurs in teams. When team members turn over frequently, the lack of team trust and cohesion often erodes the quality of care patients receive.
Earlier in the pandemic, we viewed the CDC as a part of our health care teams, as they have what many of us who work in safety net settings don’t have: Authority, public health expertise, and resources, including time to read and think. Over time, the CDC let us down: Instead of providing reliable and proactive leadership, it dithered. The CDC’s inaction forced individual agencies and clinicians to craft guidance. Why was a psychiatrist left to lead a public health response for a homelessness services agency? We wanted concrete guidance to keep people healthy and out of hospitals; we received a meager menu that deferred to the whims of politics and skeptics. We wanted tests and data to decrease disease spread and deaths; the CDC delayed sending out both laboratory and rapid tests. Recall that wealthy individuals and companies remained at home and procured tests with ease. Meanwhile, people labeled essential workers were treated as inessential: They could not access tests to protect themselves or their families. The CDC betrayed those of us who provide health care; we thus betrayed those who entrusted us with their health.
Health care workers must leave the stairwell or bathroom when our crying stops. Our tears may end, but the needs of patients do not. Physicians experiencing distress may be more prone to making medical errors. Fewer health care workers and disruptions of teams increases the work burden on those who remain, which increases their exhaustion and heartbreak. Without reliable guidance and leadership from a health authority like the CDC, we are unable to deliver unified, coherent health care. This will adversely impact not only the experiences of people who are ill, but will also result in population outcomes no one wants: More disease, more suffering, and more death. It may be too late to reverse this vicious cycle. We wish that we knew more, could do more.