Veira O, Sharfstein JM. “This Level of Death, It’s New”—Health Care Workers in Their Own Words. JAMA Health Forum. Published online December 17, 2020. doi:10.1001/jamahealthforum.2020.1551
The surge in hospitalizations for coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) around the country has led many physicians and other health care workers to speak out. We created this post directly from the recent words of frontline health care workers and medical administrators in 19 states, with the sources linked to the first word or two of each quote. Their words reflect an unprecedented time for the US health care community in the midst of the pandemic.
“This level of death, it’s new. It’s different” (Nashville, Tennessee). “I have seen so many emergent intubations. We’re taking care of very, very sick patients and our patient load just keeps going up” (Omaha, Nebraska). “I’ve done more CPR and seen more people die in the last 2 weeks than I have in my entire career combined” (El Paso, Texas).
“We are tired of our beds filling up. We are tired of watching people die. We are also tired of hearing family members say, ‘Isn’t there anything else you can do?’ and for us to say ‘no’” (Colorado Springs, Colorado). “I’ve put an ungodly amount of people in body bags that I was not prepared to do, that I was not prepared to give up on a patient, but there was nothing else we could do and we lost them” (Kingsport, Tennessee).
“The beds that we had created for our COVID units, we’ve had to take away non-COVID beds” (Mishawaka, Indiana). “When we talk about limiting surgeries, it’s not like we’re talking about minor things” (Tacoma, Washington). “Strokes are still going to happen, heart attacks are still going to happen, cancer is still going to happen … There’s no one to send help” (Beaver Dam, Wisconsin). “You can’t overwhelm a hospital and expect that care is not going to be compromised as a result” (Yuma, Arizona).
“I wish people understood how hard this is on health care workers” (Beaver Dam, Wisconsin). “It can be emotionally exhausting to give so much to your patients and they’re still dying at such a high rate” (Columbus, Ohio).
“I’m terrified. It’s engulfing my entire waking moments” (Frederick, Maryland). “I cry a lot” (Kingsport, Tennessee). “We are depressed, disheartened and tired to the bone” (Johnson City, Tennessee). “I find myself telling everyone that others are going through this, you are not weak” (Towson, Maryland).
“I’ve had to face down the fear of being exposed without proper [personal protective equipment], and have almost daily conversations with coworkers who go to work every day fearful that this is the day they’ll get sick and take COVID home to their families” (Seattle, Washington).
“To protect yourself, you just shut down. You get to the point when you realize that you’ve become a machine … There’s only so many bags you can zip (Altoona, Iowa). “It’s demoralizing and exhausting” (Chicago, Illinois).
“Many of you cheered and rang bells and put up signs calling us heroes, and we’re so grateful for that” (Portland, Oregon). “… by fall people are questioning what we’re trying to say” (El Paso, Texas). “Nobody’s clapping anymore” (St Louis, Missouri). “I guess people are tired of being alone or in their homes and want to get out and be social again” (Kingsport, Tennessee).
“It’s as if we live in two separate worlds. There’s the world inside the hospital where we see patients coming in gasping for breath, their lungs full of infection, and then there’s the world we see outside of the hospital with people not wearing masks, eating out in restaurants, partying …” (Nashville, Tennessee).
“It is so disheartening and demoralizing to leave work and just not see it, to see people gathering and talking about their travel plans, to see people waiting in a line outside a bar to get in when you’re driving home after a horrible day. It’s so upsetting” (Columbia, Missouri).
“I do this day in and day out and people are out there doing the wrong thing. People are out there in bars, restaurants, malls—it is crazy—it’s like we work, work, work, work, work and people don’t listen and then they end up in my ICU” (Houston, Texas).
“You see on social media people kind of mocking or saying it’s not very serious or comparing it to the flu but, you know, they don’t see what we see every day. They’re not holding the hands of dying people whose family can’t get to them” (Greensboro, North Carolina). “It’s so disheartening to feel that leaders in our government don’t have our backs” (Salt Lake City, Utah). “It kind of feels like we’re just, you know, yelling into the abyss” (Topeka, Kansas).
“We here, at the hospital, are no longer the frontlines. We’re the last line of defense” (Columbus, Ohio).
“We need community support right now” (Mt Vernon, Ohio). “Right now, we’re asking you to be our heroes and to listen to our call for help again” (Portland, Oregon). “Keep your social distance; wear your mask; wash your hands and avoid going to places where there are a lot of people” (Houston, Texas).
“We cannot do this without you” (Hamilton, Montana). “This is the time to double down, not to give up” (Providence, Rhode Island). “If you could just stop one case by wearing a mask or staying home when you didn’t have to go out, it would help us so much … If everybody did that for one person, I think we could stop this” (Kingsport, Tennessee). “They seem like minuscule tasks, but to us they could make the greatest difference” (Marysville, Ohio). “If people can do that, healthcare workers like me will be able to—hopefully rest” (Houston, Texas).
Corresponding Author: Joshua M. Sharfstein, MD, Bloomberg School of Public Health, Johns Hopkins University, 615 N Wolfe St, Room W1033D, Baltimore, MD 21205 (firstname.lastname@example.org).
Conflict of Interest Disclosures: None reported.
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Joshua M. Sharfstein, MD Joshua M. Sharfstein, MD, is Vice Dean for Public Health Practice and Community Engagement and Professor of the Practice at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore, Maryland. He previously served as Secretary of...