We all know that some jobs are more dangerous than others. Truck drivers, loggers, and construction workers are more likely to die on the job than most others. Firefighters and police officers also face more than the average amount of risk while at work. It’s expected that people who take on these jobs understand the risks and follow guidelines to stay as safe as possible.
But what would you do if your job suddenly became much more dangerous? And what if your workplace was unable to follow recommended guidelines to reduce that increased risk?
That’s the situation now facing millions of healthcare workers who provide medical care to patients, including nurses, doctors, respiratory therapists, EMTs, and many others. They have a markedly higher risk of becoming infected with the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, especially if they are exposed to a high volume of sick patients (such as in the emergency room) or respiratory secretions (such as intensive care unit healthcare providers). Early in the outbreak in China, thousands of healthcare workers were infected, and the numbers of infected healthcare workers and related deaths are now rising elsewhere throughout the world.
While consistent use of personal protective equipment (PPE), such as N95 medical masks, reduces the risk of becoming infected with the new coronavirus, PPE is in short supply in many places.
The challenges now facing healthcare workers
Outside of work, people who have healthcare jobs have the same pandemic-related stressors as everyone else. On top of these worries come added challenges, including
- the fear and uncertainty of a heightened risk of infection
- worry that they may carry the COVID-19 coronavirus home and infect loved ones
- a dwindling or already inadequate supply of PPE needed to minimize the risk of infection
- ever-changing recommendations from local leadership, medical and public health experts, and political leaders
- unusually high and increasing demands to work longer hours as their colleagues become sick or are quarantined
- balancing their commitment to help others (which likely led them to their current profession in the first place) with an understandable commitment to protect themselves and their loved ones.
And when ICU beds, ventilators, or staffing prove inadequate to meet demand, some healthcare workers will have to make enormously distressing and difficult ethical decisions about which patients get lifesaving care and which do not.
An echo from the AIDS crisis
I remember well the uncertainty and fear surrounding the earliest days of AIDS decades ago. There were healthcare professionals who were reluctant to treat (or even touch) people with HIV infection. Soon, it became clear that HIV was transmitted primarily by blood exposure or sexual contact. As a result, simple precautions made it quite unlikely that healthcare workers would become infected with HIV by treating patients with AIDS.
But this new coronavirus is a respiratory virus. Because personal protective equipment is being rationed in some cases and has not even been universally adopted,