Pandemic wreaks havoc among public health workers | National and regional news


Erin Murphy Journal Des Moines Office

MONKS – Like their healthcare counterparts, working in hospitals and other healthcare facilities, many public health workers are feeling the burden of the COVID-19 pandemic.

More than a year and a half after the start of the pandemic, public health workers are feeling emotional and physical stress and frustration, according to state public health directors.

“Are we tired? Yes, both physically and mentally, ”said Jeremy Otto, public information manager for Cerro Gordo Public Health in Mason City. “But we are a resilient group. I would say the frustration is where we are now. Frustrated with our vaccination rates. Frustrated that after more than 690,000 deaths in the United States, people continue to believe that this virus “is not a big problem”. Frustrated that we have the tools to contain the spread of the virus, but instead of using them, in the past seven days 30% of positive cases are among people aged 17 and under — children, many of them have no choice but to stay unvaccinated and we don’t protect them.

For more than a year and a half, public health officials have worked to educate the public about COVID-19, how to slow the spread of the virus, and the vaccines created to fight the virus. Public health services have set up testing and vaccination clinics in an effort to maximize programs designed to limit the deadly impact of the virus.

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Although they are not on the front lines of the battle against the virus in the same way that doctors, nurses and other health workers are, public health workers throughout the pandemic have themselves suffered. stress and trauma, officials said.

More than half of state and local public health officials reported symptoms of at least one mental health problem in the previous two weeks in a national survey recently conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. These conditions include depression, anxiety, suicidal thoughts, and post-traumatic stress disorder.

And two-thirds of public health workers have reported experiencing burnout, according to another study published earlier this year in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health.

“Public health workers are amazing people and continue to work day in and day out to protect public health. That being said, this pandemic has taken a heavy toll on all of our staff, ”said Brooke Barnes, deputy director of the Scott County Department of Health. “They experienced the emotional stress of listening to stories of illness and death from COVID-19 while tracing contact for families; the workload of organizing large vaccination clinics with very limited quantities of vaccines; overtime — time away from their families — while staffing clinics; and more recently, the deep sense of frustration as our community is tired and weary of listening to public health recommendations as the pandemic rages on. “

COVID-19 had claimed the lives of more than 6,500 Iowans by Friday, and cases and hospitalizations increased for the third time during the pandemic, this time reaching levels seen only once before, during the deadly peak of winter last, according to the state’s public health data.

Only 63.7% of Iowans aged 12 and older — those who are eligible to receive the COVID-19 vaccine — are fully immunized, according to federal data. That’s just below the national average of 65.1% and the 24th best in the country. The major states — all in the northeastern United States — have between 78% and 79% of their eligible residents vaccinated.

A common stressor cited by public health officials on their workers is simple fatigue. Public health workers deal with COVID all day for work, then return home and often have to continue fighting the virus — especially those with school-aged children.

“We have had instances where staff have had to take extended absences from work due to the stress of the situation,” said Otto. “We don’t have the ability to turn it off. Staff have to deal with COVID-19 all day at work, then go pick up their children and hear stories about how they were bullied in school for wearing a mask. “

Public health officials sometimes become the target of individuals unhappy with the mitigation measures adopted, whether it be face mask or vaccine requirements, or social distancing efforts.

Kevin Grieme, director of health for the Siouxland District Health Department, said staff were instructed to avoid wearing identifying items — such as agency name tags or name tags. clothing with the name or logo of the department — in public. He said there have been “a few situations” where individuals have targeted staff, but the policy is also to help workers avoid engaging in public health conversations while they are not working. .

“We’ve had a few situations where comments have targeted them, but what normally happens is people are looking for answers and want to have long discussions,” Grieme said. “I agree that staff need a break from COVID conversations and anything they can do to limit that is great. “

Grieme said the ministry had also stressed to workers the need to use their allotted vacation time.

“It’s important for staff to take their time away from work as a mental break to take better care of themselves,” he said. “COVID-related fatigue is a real problem, but we’re still talking about COVID in the sense that it’s something that won’t go away in the near future, so we have to learn how we’re going to live with it. “

Maria Sieck, public health administrator for Pottawattamie County Public Health, said the department has planned a special event to thank the county’s public health officials, but it has been postponed due to the latest increase in cases. of COVID-19.

“Our employees have remained strong throughout the pandemic efforts and continue to do so,” Sieck said. “We are planning a team building day for employees to take a well-deserved break and say ‘Thank you’. “

Public health officials have said the best way for anyone to help their workers is to get vaccinated.

“If you’re 12 or older, get the shot,” Otto said. “It’s good to have questions, so talk to your doctor. Trust the medical experts.

“Every phase, every study, every trial in the development of these vaccines has been reviewed by (the Federal Food and Drug Administration) and a safety board. They are working, they are effective, and they will help us end this pandemic. “

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