Remember healthcare workers?
The ones we called heroes and hung signs for and applauded a hundred years ago, when COVID-19 first hit and they risked their lives trying to save people from an out-of-control pandemic nobody fully understood? The ones who put up with more than any human should be asked to bear, holding together a system buckling beneath the weight of relentless suffering and death? The ones who dragged themselves and their loved ones beyond their limits for patients who were terrified and dying alone?
Well, they’re still doing it. Only now, they’re dealing with an entirely man-made disaster. Nineteen months after COVID began laying waste to millions of lives, nurses are fighting yet another wave of the disease, one that absolutely did not have to happen. They’re contending with the infuriating fact that too many Americans -- even some of those gasping for breath -- live in an alternate reality. And those caring for them are utterly, utterly exhausted.
“We are all very, very tired,” said Amanda Paul, a respiratory nurse at St Luke’s hospital in New Bedford. “There literally isn’t one person I work with who isn’t hanging by a thread. I don’t know what’s going to happen when we all decide we just can’t do this any more.”
We hit yet another grim, once-unimaginable milestone a few days ago: COVID has now killed 1 in every 500 Americans. We could have avoided this. We have a vaccine that recent studies show make people 10 times less likely to be hospitalized with COVID, and 11 times less likely to die from it. But an entire political party has turned refusing that free and lifesaving miracle into a test of loyalty -- to what, exactly, is unclear. Some perverse notion of freedom? To their God-given right to endanger themselves and others?
In some states, where governors and other politicians have enhanced their electoral prospects by thwarting measures that would save lives, and failed to counter -- or even elevated -- misinformation, this latest wave of the pandemic has brought misery to rival those first dark days. We’re doing better in Massachusetts, obviously, because we are not governed by negligent narcissists -- or calculating cynics.
But knowing things are much worse in Florida doesn’t make the work easier for nurses like Paul and others. They’ve been caring for COVID patients for 19 months, and now they’re also struggling to keep up with the other patients who had delayed care because of the pandemic. Their colleagues are leaving in droves, retiring or finding easier jobs -- or far better paid ones as traveling nurses. Nursing shortages have worsened everywhere, creating a national crisis.
They’re still caring for COVID patients, only this latest group -- largely unvaccinated -- is younger and, in some cases, sicker than those in previous waves. And more hostile.
“We had so much public support the first time around,” said Julia Blakeney-Hayward, a nurse at Baystate Franklin Medical Center in Greenfield. “Now we’re dealing with a population that has sometimes poor health literacy, and they feel really vindicated in their choice not to get vaccinated, and that often includes a distrust or a disrespect of the healthcare system and the people that work in it.”
Some unvaccinated patients are regretful in the face of the illness that could kill them. But some of her patients argue that they don’t need to be in the hospital, Blakeney-Hayward said, that COVID can’t be as dangerous as the vaccine. They have rejected that vaccine as “experimental” then beg for experimental or unproven treatments to help them breathe freely again. Some don’t trust her, don’t believe her when she tells them there’s only so much she can do for them. Like-minded family members don’t understand why they can’t visit in person.
“It just feels like we’re being gaslit by these people,” she said. Outside work, she often meets people who simply don’t believe her when she tells them what she’s seeing at the hospital: “I am just screaming into a void, and it’s gotten way worse.”
The emotional cost of seeing so much preventable suffering bleeds into the rest of their lives. Many of them still live as they did at the start of the pandemic, even as those around them have gone back to patronizing restaurants and malls. At the end of her shifts, Paul, the nurse from St Luke’s, still takes off all of her work clothes before she enters her house. She has two children, 4 and 6, who can’t get vaccinated yet, and she is terrified of bringing the virus home to them.
“I send people to the ICU all the time and I don’t see a whole lot of them come back,” she said. “It’s heartbreaking ... then I have to come home and put it aside for my family, so that I’m not the depressed and crazy mom for my kids.”
Add these nurses, and many thousands more, to COVID’s casualties, to the families and friends whose loved ones die preventable deaths, to the lucky ones who survive, only to face long-term health problems; to the millions who still can’t go back to normal life because too many are pretending the pandemic is over, or was never real.
“I hate being called a healthcare hero,” Blakeney-Hayward said. “I am not a hero. I am a human being, and you ... expect us to do work that is not humanely sustainable.”
Healthcare workers have no use for applause these days. They just want people to get vaccinated, to listen to the science and common sense, so that we can be free of this, once and for all.
Globe columnist Yvonne Abraham can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @GlobeAbraham.