Health care workers will feel stress of coronavirus long after pandemic is over, researchers say

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AUSTIN, Texas — Over the past four months, health care workers have been struggling to keep up with the demand caused by the coronavirus pandemic. The virus has put immense stress on some hospitals, diminished personal protective supplies, and, in some cases, forced doctors and nurses to separate from their families for fear of contagion.

The overwhelming demand for health care, combined with the trauma of seeing high numbers of severe and dying patients, has taken a toll on many clinicians’ mental health.

“It’s really been a tsunami of stress,” said Dr. Charles B. Nemeroff, chair of the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Texas’ Dell Medical School. “Because of all this, we recognized that there was a need for health care workers to have an outlet.”

This month, through a $60,000 grant from the Hogg Foundation for Mental Health at the University of Texas, the Dell Medical School has launched a mental health hotline for health care workers working on the front lines of the coronavirus pandemic.

The hope is to mitigate the stress of the pandemic, which, unlike other traumatic events, such as terrorist attacks or natural disasters, has been consistent and prolonged, Nemeroff said. It could result in unusual loss of sleep, heightened anxiety and exhaustion.

“It’s not ‘one and done,’” he said. “It starts wearing people down. They start experiencing symptoms they’ve never had before.”

The grant is mainly meant to support health care workers in Central Texas, who can call the hotline and speak to someone about their stress, anxiety or depression, and get connected with other resources if necessary.

But the phenomenon is not just happening in Texas — across the country, many in hospitals and clinics are feeling particularly downtrodden after several months of seeing high levels of suffering and death.

In an April study in the Journal of the American Medical Association, researchers at the Stanford University School of Medicine and Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai determined it is essential that health care professionals be able to perform to their full potential over an extended time interval in order to handle the coronavirus. Many surveyed clinicians said they had worries about things like access to protective equipment, possibly exposing their families to the virus, access to childcare during increased work hours and school closures, and support for other personal and family needs as work hours and demands increase.

“Although these sources of anxiety may not affect everyone, they can weaken the confidence of health care professionals in themselves and the health care delivery system precisely when their ability to stay calm and reassure the public is most needed,” the authors wrote.

Clinicians’ mental stress has been apparent over the last few months, especially following the death of a prominent Manhattan doctor who treated many severe coronavirus cases. Dr. Octavio Martinez, director of the Hogg Foundation, said the mental health effects of the coronavirus are clear now, and will last long after pandemic ends.

“We have discovered, and we now know that there’s an acute phase, a medium phase, and then also a long term phase to the impact that it has on our frontline health workers,” he said.

The grant from the Hogg Foundation will help psychiatrists at Dell Med, in collaboration with UT’s Steve Hicks School of Social Work, treat clinicians for three months. After that, the hope is to obtain more funding from other grants or sources to continue the service.

As cases continue to tick up in Texas and several states across the U.S., Martinez said it is important to make sure we take care of those who take care of us.

“The reality is that this is ongoing and will have a toll,” he said. “And there is not an unlimited supply of human capital or frontline health professionals. There’s only a limited number of them. We can’t make them overnight.”


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