The Pandemic Broke America’s Health-Care Workers

She wants desperately to go back to working in the hospital, but can’t tolerate wearing a surgical mask for more than two hours without intense coughing spells. “I feel really, really bad because they’re really, really short-staffed,” she said. “I just feel so helpless.”

She’s also furious. Before she was forced to stop working, she had been fighting for adequate PPE—and her colleagues are still fighting. Hospitals and nursing homes were notoriously flat-footed at the start of the pandemic, but even as recently as November, more than 80 percent of National Nurses United members reported reusing at least one type of single-use PPE such as masks. Arciaga likened herself and her co-workers to soldiers. “You’re throwing me into a war, fighting a battle without a gun, without shoes, without a helmet, no armor.” She’s become afraid to go outside and be around other people. The first time her husband made her leave the house, they drove to the ocean, with just a stop for gas, and she gripped his hand in fear the whole time. “I still have some sort of PTSD,” she said.

When I asked Adarra Benjamin, a home health and personal-care aide in Chicago, to sum up the past year, all she could get out was, “Panic, panic, suspense.” Eventually she added, “Every day is like a waiting game to see if someone gets sick.” Because she works in people’s homes, she’s lost most of her clients and income this year. She wants to take on more clients as they become willing, but worries she’ll be exposed to COVID-19.

After months of seeing co-workers, patients, and others engage in risky behavior, Bartie Scott, a nurse practitioner in Fayetteville, Tennessee, is similarly at the end of her rope. The week after Thanksgiving, one 70-year-old woman who came to her clinic to get a COVID-19 test after her co-workers had tested positive admitted that, despite feeling under the weather a few days before Thanksgiving, she had eaten her holiday meal at a restaurant with her daughter. Her test was positive.

Scott has tried to ignore the people around her not wearing masks, but when she recently had to wait in a crowded room with two men who weren’t, she couldn’t stay silent anymore. She asked them to wait somewhere else, but instead of leaving, other people jumped in to defend them. “It’s like a slap in the face,” she told me. It feels like “a personal insult.”

“On the surface, I tell myself I’m keeping it all together,” she said. But “underneath, I’ve been kind of angry.”

In the fall, Shelley Hughes started adding an extra night to her weekly schedule to help ease the staffing shortage at her facility. But it took a toll. “I felt like I was dying,” she said. “It just felt like all of the life and energy was gone.” She went to work, came home, and was capable of doing nothing else—not playing the piano, cuddling with her puppy, or any of the other activities she had been using to distract herself. Her relationship with her husband suffered. She finally got blood work done and was diagnosed with hypothyroidism right before New Year’s. Her doctor suggested that stress from work was a trigger.

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