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How Loss Of Health Care Workers In Pandemic Affects Profession


The number feels as stunning as it does inevitable. Within days, the United States will surpass 200,000 deaths from COVID-19. According to independent tracking from Kaiser Health News and The Guardian, nearly 1,200 of those who died were health care workers. Many were helping patients who were infected with the coronavirus. Christopher Friese is a professor of nursing at the University of Michigan and a registered nurse himself. He says it takes an enormous toll to tend to and maybe lose the very people you worked with.

CHRISTOPHER FRIESE: Our professionals are weary. We are tired. And that is going to have downstream implications.

CORNISH: Those implications go way beyond just losing manpower. For one, Friese says that these deaths fit existing inequities in American health care.

FRIESE: Environments with fewer resources, places like nursing homes, prisons, they usually don't carry the kind of protective equipment that we need in this pandemic. Those workers were particularly hard hit. And many of those workers are of color and work in disadvantaged areas.

CORNISH: And I can't imagine trying to care for people who you've actually worked with, right? I mean, is that a scenario that can happen here?

FRIESE: Right. Some of the early reporting from New York in particular included stories of fallen team members having to be cared for by their own team, ICU nurses now admitted to their own ICU, their own colleagues having to resuscitate them, revive them, and in some cases call their family members to say goodbye. And I've had unfortunately that circumstance - caring for colleagues before in a different circumstance. And it's very difficult. It's very emotional. And it's hard work.

CORNISH: I know in many hospitals or other facilities they're reusing protective equipment - right? - stuff that that should have been one-time use or would've been considered one-time use in the past.

FRIESE: Right. So let's be really clear about this. Despite a lot of messaging, there is an acute shortage of high-quality personal protective equipment in the U.S. health care system today. And that's astonishing. And we have to look and wonder why we're still doing this seven to eight months in and what we could be doing differently to make sure that supply of personal protective equipment is there as we enter the flu season.

CORNISH: One thing we're trying to understand is how this loss - these deaths and the loss of expertise - right? - affects the care that patients receive.

FRIESE: Right. So the loss of these senior expert health care workers can't be replaced in short order. And when we have less experienced health care workers at the bedside, that has huge implications across our sector. I also worry that the loss of experts at the bedside will make it harder to train the next generation of health care professionals, those in training. And then I also worry that this long-term depletion of our health care workforce will only exacerbate the weariness that I've seen in my colleagues today.

CORNISH: And I can't imagine it helps when it comes to recruitment and drawing new people in.

FRIESE: I think that's something we'll need to monitor carefully. I worry about students and aspiring students who may have thought health care was the right field for them who might be rethinking those decisions as they see how our nation has protected or not protected our health care workers.

CORNISH: Early in the kind of quarantine shutdowns here in the U.S., there was a lot of kind of rhetoric praising health care workers, which no doubt was sincere, but you would have these kind of, like, a moment of silence or a moment of applause, you know, outside of your house or apartment. Is that kind of thing still going on or do people feel kind of forgotten as the pandemic has dragged on?

FRIESE: So I appreciate our community's response, and I think my colleagues do as well. It's been really heartening to see that level of attention and care. I do admit sheepishly - having an extra hour in the grocery store for health care workers is a rare treat. But I think what we would really like is adequate personal protective equipment. We would like our public health professionals to speak with one voice consistently on what the U.S. population should be doing to keep themselves safe and healthy. I think we'd rather have that than some of the other accolades that we've seen. We're here to take care of patients, and that's what we want to do. And we want to get people well first and foremost.

CORNISH: Christopher Friese, thank you so much for talking with us and sharing this story. We appreciate it.

FRIESE: Thank you, Audie.

CORNISH: That's Christopher Friese, professor of nursing and health management at the University of Michigan. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.