When the first cases of COVID-19 hit the U.S. one year ago, the impact that erupted in its wake and the urgency to stop the spread was startling. At the helm of it all—frontline healthcare workers doing their best to mitigate and treat the influx of patients hit by the virus, while keeping themselves and their family members safe.
Since then, we have come to understand more about the COVID-19 pandemic that has taken the lives of more than 500,000 people in the U.S. and nearly 2.5 million all over the world. One year later, frontline healthcare workers have more insight and more challenges to face moving forward.
The future needs funding for public health challenges
In the beginning of 2020, scientists had little information about this new coronavirus as it swept through the nation. Because COVID-19 was so new and so elusive, they didn’t know how it could be transmitted, treated, or prevented. One of the largest COVID topics is how unprepared the U.S. and the world was for this virus, and experts say a key factor has been the defunding of public health systems.
For the last two decades, we have been reducing the support of state and federal public health departments. According to a Kaiser Health News and Associated Press analysis of government spending on public health, spending for state public health departments has decreased 16 percent per capita since 2010 and spending for local health departments has decreased by 18 percent since 2010.
With resources already scarce, these decreases left even fewer resources to deal with a public health crisis when COVID struck. Resources for COVID testing and tracing were not available when they were needed to help contain COVID infected persons to slow the spread. Healthcare layoffs due to lack of funding had already begun, pre-pandemic and without healthcare workers and a rampant viral outbreak continuing to overrun hospitals, this only snowballed the effect of the virus, leaving frontline healthcare workers scrambling to help an overwhelmed and underprepared facility.
Vaccine education will help us reach herd immunity
As more vaccines are approved and a timeline is rolled out for getting the public vaccinated, healthcare workers are facing patients with vaccine hesitancy. Widespread vaccine misinformation has made some people skeptical about COVID vaccines, but how detrimental are these vaccine myths? In an article from Nature Human Behavior, a poll was conducted in both the U.K. and the U.S. to measure how online misinformation around COVID-19 vaccines affects people’s willingness to vaccinate to protect themselves and others. There has been an array of false information circulating online about the pandemic and the vaccines, such as that the pandemic is a conspiracy, it is being used as a bioweapon, and that vaccine trial participants have died after taking a candidate COVID-19 vaccine. This misinformation can exacerbate fears, and spread doubt about new vaccines, which limits our chances of reaching herd immunity.
To reach herd immunity, it’s estimated that at least 55 percent of the population would need to accept a COVID vaccine, with numbers even as high as 85 percent, depending on the country and infection rate. The U.S. is currently hovering right around 70 percent. Without herd immunity, we face a possibility of another pandemic and another strain placed upon frontline healthcare workers. Educating those with vaccine skepticism is an ongoing hurdle.
Racial disparities in healthcare affect patients and frontline healthcare staff
The virus has disproportionately affected Black and Hispanic Americans—people of color make up nearly 65% of COVID deaths in cases in which there is race and ethnicity data. These disparities extend to the healthcare workers who have treated them, intubated them, and made them as comfortable as possible during their final days. A recent study cites that healthcare workers of color are more than twice as likely to test positive for COVID compared to white healthcare workers. They are also more prone to treating patients with the virus, and more likely to work in nursing home facilities, which have been a large source of COVID outbreaks. Even more alarming—healthcare workers of color were more likely to report an insufficient stock of PPE, putting them at higher risk for contracting COVID from the patients they are treating.
Healthcare workers are facing long-term effects from a positive COVID diagnosis
When you’re in ground zero of a viral outbreak, your chances of getting infected are higher. This rings true for frontline healthcare workers, who put themselves at risk every day to help COVID patients, even with the lack of PPE provided. By November 2020, it was estimated that nearly 300,000 frontline healthcare workers were infected with COVID-19 and 2,900 have died. But even beyond that, those who have overcome COVID could face long-term effects of the virus.
Long term effects of COVID are being discovered that could impact a person’s health permanently. While the symptoms of COVID can continue for months, we have recently found that long-term health effects of COVID show damage to the lungs, heart, and brain. In addition to these symptoms and effects noted by Mayo Clinic, a recent journal article reports on a study of the effects of COVID after six months. The study found that after six months of COVID-19 infection, survivors mental health effects were noted—difficulty sleeping, anxiety, and depression. Patients who were hospitalized and severely affected by COVID showed abnormal chest imaging and impaired pulmonary diffusion—i.e. respiratory issues. While the whole picture of long-term health effects are still unclear, more and more health issues are being uncovered as they related to COVID infection.
While healthcare workers continue to mitigate the impact of COVID, the challenges they face, especially for those who are working or have worked on the frontlines of this pandemic, are not limited. It has been rebutted that nobody thought a viral pandemic of this magnitude would have ever happened, but it’s worth noting—now that we know, we can do better.