Taking the temperature: The delta variant surge and impact on healthcare worker burnout

Mural from Colfax in Denver, CO

As we now face this current delta variant-driven surge, many of my colleagues from around the world are tired. I am tired. I’m tired of our divided country, living in echo chambers and split by media-propagated disinformation about the coronavirus vaccine. I’m tired of some state leaders willing to place at risk the lives of their own constituents in a power play to capitulate to the anti-vax fear mongering, rather than advocating that their voters avail themselves of the same protection that the politicians received. I’m tired of the rising cases and — again — overwhelmed hospitals and ICU beds — where we — again — ask our doctors and nurses to take care of people who chose not to take care of themselves or their families by getting the vaccine. I’m tired of vaccines expiring on the shelves in this country while people die around the world. And it isn’t just me. Taking the temperature of my healthcare worker colleagues on MedTwitter, in social media, and in articles, we’re all dreading what is to come. Because we’ve been through it already… several times. We’ve been on the front lines with people cheering for us yet not willing to step up when asked and do the one thing they could do to help conquer the virus (get vaccinated or wear a mask). We’ve been there at the bedside contemplating when to intubate our patients, asking if they had a chance to talk to their family members first (as it may well be their last time doing so), considering whether they need extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO — a lung bypass machine we use when even a ventilator does not work). We’ve been there, and we’re here again. And now we’re seeing younger people getting sicker, and children being hospitalized with COVID-19.

Case count as of 8/8/2021 from the New York Times

And in the midst of it, while my heart goes out to those I care for who suffer from COVID-19 and their family members, I feel a great deal of pain for my healthcare worker brothers and sisters. There is a crisis of moral injury and PTSD that we’re seeing in the healthcare profession with 55% of healthcare workers reporting being burned out. This piece from Cassandra Alexander from HuffPost about getting PTSD from a year in the COVID ICU resonates. I know several current ICU doctors and nurses struggling under the weight of the pandemic, and almost 3 in 10 healthcare workers have contemplated leaving healthcare altogether. Some are walking away from their jobs. We are at a tipping point.

Yet there is hope on the horizon. Despite the continued propagation of disinformation, vaccine hesitant people are beginning to realize that getting the vaccine is safer than getting sick with COVID. And I hope we will hear more stories of people changing their minds and getting the vaccine as we move forward. Unfortunately this next wave is here and increasing, especially in low-vaccinated areas, and this time the concern is that, as the virus continues to evolve, children will suffer more than the last time. It is unfortunate that experiencing the devastation of this wave yet again is likely required to help us break out of our echo chambers.

In the meantime, we will continue to share our voices from the front lines. And show up, put in the work, lean on each other, and work to make it through this next wave while our fellow Americans hopefully join us.

If you’ve gotten the vaccine and want to do more to help healthcare workers on the front lines, I ask that you check out the Dr. Lorna Breen Heroes’ Foundation. They’ve been advocating for the bipartisan Dr. Lorna Breen Heroes’ Act, which just passed the US Senate. You can read more about the protections for healthcare workers in this act here, and if you want to advocate for us, please contact your US Representatives and let them know you want them to support it’s passage through the House. And although my Facebook Fundraiser for the Dr. Lorna Breen Heroes’ Foundation is closed (thank you to all who donated!), you can donate directly to their organization to help their important work. It literally may save lives of those who are working to save the lives of others.

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Patricia George

Patricia George

Physician, athlete, and lover of the outdoors. Seeking to understand how we manifest our best selves. Inspired by hope. Opinions are my own.