The COVID-19 pandemic represents an “unmitigated attack” on providers and first responders, which has left workers “fatigued emotionally and physically” according to public health experts at a March 9 hearing of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee on the COVID-19 response.
The nation’s public health system had been “hollowed out over the past 10 years” said Ashish Jha (Brown University) due to years of underinvestment and chronic personnel shortages.
As a result, the challenges facing front-line health care workers according to Mary Ann Fuchs (Duke University) include a lack of access to personal protective equipment, confusion over changing policies, and exhaustion from surge staffing. Fuchs also described the growing toll on health care workers’ emotional well-being due to fears of exposing family members to the virus and the trauma of constantly treating critically ill patients. Washington State Secretary of Health Umair Shah similarly observed “compassion fatigue” among behavioral health providers as they face their own mental health pressures, and he noted outdated information technology systems such as faxes have complicated workers’ response efforts. The result of these pressures, explained Fuchs, is the exacerbation of high rates of depression, burnout, addiction, and suicide among providers that existed before COVID-19. As a consequence, Fuchs said the pandemic threatens to increase already-high turnover rates among health care workers.
To tackle stressors on the health workforce, the panelists recommended:
- greater access to behavioral health resources that provide assessment and short-term counseling for providers
- more support of workplace violence initiatives
- new ways for paying primary care physicians
- focus on diversity and equity to ensure workers represent the communities they serve
- expansion of the public health workforce to include specialists and paraprofessionals
The panel underscored that rebuilding the nation’s public health system is essential to prepare for the next pandemic. As described by Jha, economic development, climate change, and globalization are thrusting the world into a new “age of pandemics,” which underscores the need to continue to invest in the public health workforce even after the COVID-19 public health emergency ends.