A group of doctors representing St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital attempt to get Gov. Bill Lee’s attention after an October press conference. (Photo:John Partipilo)
Almost two years ago, the COVID-19 pandemic came to Tennessee, changing our lives forever. Time stood still when we locked down but since then it seems that time has flown. These past two years have been a roller coaster of emotions for us healthcare workers.
First, there was the fear that we would succumb to the virus like our colleagues in Italy and China during the initial phase of the pandemic due to lack of personal protective equipment. Then there was relief as a safe, effective vaccine became available. Next, we felt exhaustion as we treated wave after wave of sick patients. And finally, anger and burnout as a sizable portion of the population listened to misinformation and disinformation which led to decreased mask wearing, lower vaccination rates and another spike in cases with the omicron variant working its way through the population.
We are all tired of COVID at this point. Tired of talking about it. Tired of hearing about it in the news. Tired of wearing masks. Tired of worrying about friends or family members who are at risk for severe disease. Tired of the pushback from those who won’t listen to the proven science. Just plain tired. But as tired as we are of this pandemic, it is not over. I am still treating patients with COVID in my emergency departments, many of whom are unvaccinated, especially in the rural areas.
One of the hardest things for us healthcare workers right now is empathy fatigue. We have worked so hard for almost two years to keep people alive, while trying to protect ourselves and our loved ones from illness. And when we see unvaccinated people coming to the hospitals with difficulty breathing, and other complications of a virus that we now have a vaccine for… well, it’s becoming harder and harder not to say “why didn’t you listen” or “we told you so.”
Healthcare worker burnout and fatigue has gotten media attention lately, leading to messages from the World Health Organization, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the U.S. Surgeon General. Even the Tennessee Department of Health has recognized the problem and on January 17, tweeted “Health care workers: It is normal to feel stress, anxiety, & job fatigue. You’ve been our warriors on the front lines for a long time now. Take care of your mental health as much as you can and know you are appreciated. We can’t fight this pandemic without you.”
The problem is the Tennessee Department of Health has sent multiple mixed messages during the pandemic which has likely led to decreased vaccination rates and made the jobs of healthcare workers harder.
The firing of a top vaccination official for doing her job, as well as stopping vaccine outreach for children hurt our chances of strong vaccination rates in our pediatric population. And now, Commissioner Lisa Piercey, is telling Tennesseans that we’ve reached the peak of this surge. I’d like to see the data that shows that but unfortunately the department decided to stop reporting daily COVID numbers so it’s difficult to know what’s really going on in our state.
The state of our healthcare system right now is dire. Hospitals all over Tennessee are at their breaking point. Just a few nights ago, I was working in my rural county hospital and needed to transfer patients to bigger hospitals for higher levels of care. We reached out to multiple hospitals in the middle Tennessee area to find out they were all at critical capacity and not accepting transfers.
This situation is the result of staffing issues, not the hospitals being completely full. These staffing issues stem from healthcare workers leaving the workforce from burnout and also being out sick with the virus themselves.
Many healthcare workers in our state are frustrated by the lack of support from state legislators and our governor. The Tennessee General Assembly passed a slate of laws at the end of 2021 which have severely hampered our ability to fight the omicron surge. Hindsight has proven the shortsightedness of their actions. Our state has been setting records for positivity rates and number of cases. Hospitalizations have gone up and people continue to die. We no longer have mask mandates in most schools, which has led to record numbers of sick students, teachers and staff as well as schools closing.
What we need most right now is strong leadership. If Gov. Bill Lee reinstated the state of emergency, we could bring back mask mandates in the counties that are currently being hit the hardest by this Omicron variant.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t look like he is seeing what is happening in our communities and hospitals. He said recently that he is “hopeful that what happens in this surge will soon be over but it is continuing to be a great challenge, this pandemic has, for two years, continues to be a challenge.”
To me, that “hope” feels a lot like the “thoughts and prayers” we hear after tragedies instead of decisiveness and action. Gov. Lee, more than hope, what we need now is action and leadership and without it, I worry about the state of our healthcare system after this latest wave of COVID passes.
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