Dr. Jack Lyons remembers the pandemic’s early days when grateful communities banged pots and pans to honor frontline health care workers.
But now, faced with hostility just for trying to save his patients’ lives, he says that, sadly, those days are long gone.
Lyons is one of the many doctors and nurses tackling the rise in Covid-19 cases that are flooding hospitals as the Omicron variant rapidly spreads throughout the country.
Now health care workers fighting on the front lines of the pandemic are also coming face to face with patients who dismiss and even threaten them over how they are being treated for the virus.
“Folks act as if they can come in the hospital and request any certain therapy they want or conversely decline any therapy they want with the idea being that somehow they can pick and choose and direct their therapy. And it doesn’t work,” Lyons told CNN from the CentraCare hospital he works at in St. Cloud, Minnesota.
As the highly transmissible Omicron variant, which has become the dominant strain in the US in a matter of weeks, drives up case counts, a newly fueled wave of misinformation about the pandemic and the vaccines designed to end it continues.
From groundless conspiracy theories that the vaccines contain microchips or alter people’s DNA to deliberate falsehoods about vaccine deaths and mask side effects, the pandemic misinformation industry is thriving.
This dangerous misinformation has also led to a slew of lawsuits being filed against hospitals demanding unproven medical treatments, like Ivermectin. Health care providers are reporting growing hostility between medical workers and patients and their families.
It’s a constant dose of harassment and vitriol.
“They insult your intelligence, they insult your ability, and most hurtful, they say that by not using these therapies you are intentionally trying to harm the people we’ve given everything to save,” Lyons said.
About 70% of the patients in Lyons’ ICU are sick with Covid-19, and almost all of them are unvaccinated.
Ivermectin is used to treat parasites such as worms and lice in humans and it is also used by veterinarians to deworm large animals. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warned about a sharp increase in reports of severe illness caused by the drug to poison centers.
“The most difficult experience we’ve had is a patient’s family who under a pseudonym had made threats against the hospital,” Lyons said. “There was a reference to making sure the hospital was locked and we’ve got people that are coming for you.”
“I’m not sure how a person would take ‘We’re gonna come to that, we’re gonna march on the hospital. We’re coming for you’ as anything other than a death threat,” he added.
Lyons knows that he meets people on their worst day. As a critical care physician, he and other health care workers have long experienced aggression from patients and their loved ones in the most desperate of circumstances.
But Covid has made those conversations even tougher, especially now when so many of his patients are unvaccinated, distrustful of his experience, and demanding alternative treatments fueled by misinformation.
“These are folks that are advocating for their loved ones that are on life support. And I have a tremendous amount of sympathy,” he said.
But he feels they’ve been manipulated by bad information and other doctors pushing treatments not rooted in evidence-based science, the most popular one being Ivermectin.
“And those are the folks that I don’t have any respect for — the charlatans and the snake oil salesmen that are selling this,” Lyons continued. “They’re preying on people’s hope and trying to take advantage of desperate families who would do anything to get their loved one home.”
“It’s hurtful, we’re exhausted, we’re tired …”
Health care workers are so drained, they sometimes need encouragement to simply walk from their cars into their workplace, according to Barbara Chapman, a nurse practitioner who works at the University of Texas at Tyler.
“It’s like when a veteran comes back from the war, he may be out of the war, but he hasn’t left that war,” Chapman told Lavandera. “It’s a battlefield.”
Last summer, Chapman helped start a hotline offering teachers and health care workers mental health support.
Staggering numbers of health care workers — more than one in five — have experienced anxiety, depression or post-traumatic stress disorder during the pandemic, research published in March has revealed.
Doctors and nurses throughout the country held out hope that the availability of vaccines, the most effective tool to prevent serious illness, would mean a gradual end to the horror.
Instead, misinformation has led to many refusing to get vaccinated, distinguishing hopes that the country would reach herd immunity, the point at which enough people are protected against a disease that it cannot spread through the population.
“We want to help folks. And now that folks aren’t getting vaccinated, they’re not believing us,” Chapman said. “They’re questioning our education and our background. It’s hurtful, we’re exhausted, we’re tired, and so we have been morally injured in this outbreak.”
An emergency room physician who asked not to be identified for fear of retaliation spoke about the immense frustration and burnout that doctors feel when dealing with patients who are demanding unproven treatments but continue to resist the vaccine.
“I mean, can you imagine if a dentist had as many arguments about brushing teeth as we have about the COVID vaccine?” the doctor said. “There would be no f**king dentists.”
More than 69,700 Covid-19 patients were in US hospitals on Wednesday — a number that’s been trending up since it dipped to around 45,000 on November 8, according to Health and Human Services Department data.
The US averaged 1,324 Covid-19 deaths a day over the last week, 11% higher than a week prior, according to Johns Hopkins.
Concerns of a massive wave of health care workers quitting
At the beginning of the pandemic, health care workers were willing to make life-changing sacrifices to help save lives amid a pandemic that changed the world.
Many rented apartments and lived apart from their families to serve their patients. Residents threw parades for them to thank them for their work. They’ve reused PPE, canceled vacations and worked extended shifts for employers they don’t always feel value their safety.
But now, with the availability of vaccines that may be the only way to end the cycle of tragedy, many are concerned that health care workers, unappreciated and constantly facing threats, will finally say they’ve had enough.
A study led by the American Medical Association examining the relationship between “COVID-related stress and work intentions of U.S. health care workers” has highlighted serious concern that the country might be on the brink of a “turnover wave” among the health care industry.
The study found that 1 in 5 physicians and 2 in 5 nurses intend to leave their current practice within 2 years.
Even Lyons, who has worked at the same hospital since the beginning of the pandemic, says it becomes increasingly difficult to stay optimistic.
“It is frequently heartbreaking. It is demoralizing at times. We do our best to remain hopeful,” he said. “But as the months grind on and we find ourselves more and more fatigued and more and more my colleagues leaving the profession. It gets harder and harder every day.”
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