This article first appeared in Colorado Public Radio on March 23, 2020.
While working long hours for the last 15 or 16 days, a nurse at Vail Health Hospital said she’s also struggled with watching people in her community not taking the threat of COVID-19 seriously.
“I’d liken it to firefighters fighting a forest fire and then turning around and seeing someone with an open campfire or throwing a cigarette out the window,” said Julie Jackson who, in her additional role as IT director, has been setting up facilities for a response in anticipation of a larger COVID-19 outbreak.
“People are working many hours and many days and then [it is disappointing] to see others not understanding the magnitude of the situation.”
A global pandemic is a scary and anxiety-inducing time for everyone on the planet, but frontline health care workers face additional burdens at work and outside of it. As COVID-19 makes its way around the state, Colorado’s thousands of health care workers are putting in longer hours, stressing about hospital preparations and worrying about contracting the virus and bringing it home.
“This can be a really tough time for caregivers, and our providers and employees who are taking care of patients on a daily basis and all at the same time dealing with their own concerns,” said Anjanette Mosebar, the vice president of human resources for UCHealth.
Even before the COVID-19 outbreak, UCHealth offered employees a full package of mental health benefits, including counseling, a 24-hour crisis hotline and an employee leave program for times of hardship. Since the virus has arrived in Denver, they’ve launched additional training programs to help health care workers deal with the mental toll of the outbreak. Over the last several weeks Mosebar said they’ve seen an uptick in the number of employees making calls and scheduling counseling.
When Sophie Chen, a nurse in Denver, was in nursing school she learned about the inherent stresses of the career she planned to pursue. She was taught how to prepare herself mentally to face emergency situations and to protect herself from physical harm. With her schooling and work experience, Chen felt prepared to go to work following the global outbreak of COVID-19, but what she wasn’t expecting was some of the stresses she faced at home.
“Some of my roommates are leaving because they’re not comfortable being in the house with health care workers,” she said. “That feels really isolating. That leads to some anxiety about people being afraid to be around me.”
In Eagle County, which has seen one of the highest concentrations of positive COVID-19 tests in the state, the entire community has seen a marked increase in mental health-related emergencies and the use of crisis services. According to Casey Wolfington, a community behavioral health director in the area, health care workers are used to periods of high anxiety and stress, but this pandemic is different for them too.
“Something that is really unique to this situation is that it is not a time-limited event. It would be really helpful if we could say ‘well next week will be better, I just have to get through Friday,” Wolfington said. “But cases just continue to spread in our community at shocking levels.”
In addition to crisis and counseling services for health care workers, Wolfington said she is directly embedded in Vail Health’s COVID Incident Command team to help evaluate morale among the staff. Since the outbreak, they’ve started bringing food to health workers during their shifts and offering yoga and meditation breaks.
With the uncertainty surrounding COVID-19 many health care facilities have lengthened the amount of time that frontline responders need to take off after showing signs of illness, and some health care workers have described feeling pressure to keep themselves healthy in order to continue working. Even those not directly working on COVID-19 have stepped up to help in any way they can.
This call to serve among health care workers is something that has been getting attention throughout the country. Chen referenced the digital praise surrounding a viral Facebook post from a nurse who worked during the Ebola outbreak that she said gave her some hope.
“The general public is acknowledging that we have a very risky job, but that they are very grateful,” Chen said. “That’s why you work in nursing is to help and to show up even if everyone else is running away.”