It was both startling and gratifying when health care workers were being hailed as heroes in the spring.
It started in Italy and New York City as they weathered the first surges of COVID-19. I’ll admit, the first time I heard the banging of pots and pans in my own hometown of Portland, Oregon — at 7 p.m. on the dot — I was moved to tears. The implicit message of that gesture was clear: There isn’t much we can do from home, but we can recognize and cheer you on as you battle the pandemic.
But as the pandemic wore on and the 7 p.m. shows of support petered out, the “hero” title became a complex one. It put a burden on us to walk in stoically to sometimes dangerous workplaces and seemed to give little leeway for showing our own fear, anxiety, stress and sadness. Now, it has become obvious that many people prefer to cheer on health care workers than listen to their advice and entreaties. As we’ve relayed the realities of our “hero” work, some have accused us of fear mongering and exaggerating case counts for profit.
Health experts best equipped to advise the administration and guide the country skillfully out of this crisis were ignored in favor of those with no public health or pandemic expertise, in some cases espousing extreme and harmful opinions. Somehow the conversation around that simple public health tool, a mask, became polarizing. And although COVID-19 cases spiked predictably after the social gatherings around Memorial Day, Independence Day, Labor Day and Halloween, people continued to gather for Thanksgiving. Now we are bracing for the aftermath.
We all turn to messages of hope, and at the end of this longest of years, it’s natural to want better news than many health care workers have to offer, especially as the third wave of the pandemic engulfs us. It’s natural to tune out what’s happening in hospitals — not in indifference to illness and death, but in a sort of yearning denial. Everyone plays their personal odds of disease, and for many, even 13.5 million cases and 270,000 deaths hasn’t translated to up-close-and-personal impact.
On the other hand, missing our loved ones, and wanting to keep businesses alive — these are our day-to-day realities, and they are valid concerns. Needing a social and mental pop-off valve is one, too. My child’s dance studio started a petition to reverse our current “freeze” on businesses in Oregon. I felt a shattering betrayal, since our intensive care units are at 90% capacity. But when I clicked on the petition and read the comments, I saw parents weighing the data and the pros and cons, for the most part thoughtfully, out of concern for their children’s, and their own, mental health.
People are complex. They can applaud us as heroes but still want the best for themselves and their families on any given day. And I know that many people are doing their very best. I see friends and strangers on social media describing their personal decisions to forego gatherings. An October poll showed that more than 70% of Americans reported wearing their mask at least sometimes or often when they leave the house.
But those who reject public health recommendations are heavy on our minds as the third wave of the pandemic crests over the U.S. The reality remains: Hospital workers face an unfathomably difficult winter. The pandemic has gone on for so long, and those of us who aren’t yet deep in the surge are rolling up our sleeves to enter it. We may have been your heroes in the spring, but our workforce is depleted, both in numbers and mental and physical exhaustion. Hospitals and health care providers have begged people to follow coronavirus-containment measures.
The vaccine is in sight. But it will take many months to distribute it widely, and we need to buy ourselves time through record-setting face-mask wearing and an extraordinarily quiet winter, without travel, gatherings and other superspreader events. This requires non-health care people, from their homes everywhere, to sacrifice courageously, even at personal cost. How many fall ill, become hospitalized and die from coronavirus is up to you.
In other words, we’re asking all of you to be our heroes now.
Only this time, we’ll be cheering you on.
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Dr. Esther Choo: Can Americans Be Heroes for Health Care Workers Now? originally appeared on usnews.com