Pandemic Reflections: Thoughts on the Covid pandemic from a frontline healthcare worker.

Photo credit Fia Giannatasio

As a physical therapist assistant, I never imagined that my job would require me to risk my life and that of my loved ones on a daily basis. In healthcare supporting services like mine we are familiar with standard infection control procedures and risks. Most commonly encountered are things like needlesticks and infectious diseases, but never before on a daily basis, never before with a deadly unknown player, and never before lacking the proper personal protective equipment designed to protect healthcare workers from said hazards.

Like flipping a pancake, from soft and easy, to burnt and hard, substance changed in the briefest of moments, my job abruptly became exponentially more dangerous and stressful. As with all healthcare agencies, there was the initial scramble when the first positive cases were announced in our respective states. Agency and employees, holding collective breaths, waiting for clear guidance and direction from state and national health departments and the CDC. Direction that said, wash your hands more, avoid symptomatic sick people, sick people stay home, relax, Covid-19 is easily avoided, transmission is based on direct contact.

The first case announced here in March, ours among the first few West Coast states to get infected. My husband and I went to the grocery store the following weekend and began stocking up on food (nothing crazy, we don’t have funds to buy all the TP in the store), enough supplies for a few weeks. By week two, when we ran back to the store to look for a few things we lacked — we noticed that TP, paper towels, hand sanitizer, bleach, meat, beans and rice, flour, all vanished from the four big stores in a ten mile radius of my home. That week, I began wearing a mask (a paper surgical one) and disposable gloves, all day every day. I made a bleach and water solution in a spray bottle and kept it in my car to spray down my shoes between patients homes and facilities. I started stripping down in the doorway when I came home, removing shoes and clothes before going in the house and showering immediately.

I still had no information as to exactly how bad this virus was, nor had I been told to do any of the above by my employer, nor the CDC. I heard novel, contagious, respiratory illness on the news and thought “better safe than sorry.” My lungs don’t work on a good day, there’s no sense in being dismissive about this until I have more information. The survivor in me ever vigilant and proactive, unable to turn off my survival instincts decades after I no longer need them. In this case though, my cynical, realistic, practicality that waits for no one to think for me, protect, or save me, actually served me well.

In the weeks that followed, my company followed the slow CDC curve of increased prevention, adding requirements for employees to wear gloves and masks, eye protection when with patients. The CDC lowered previously existing infection control standards to adapt to the lack of PPE, rather than orchestrating more to keep real safety standards. And all around me, coworkers and friends contracted Covid-19, some became ill, some not, thankfully everyone I know personally recovered. It grieves me deeply that so much pain, illness and death could have been avoided with an ounce of prevention by those charged with the health and welfare of the public.

The fault is not that we didn’t know, the fault is that we knew there was some level of danger and took no preventative action until far too late. If you can’t tell if there’s a train coming around the bend, do you step on the tracks, hoping for the best, or wait until you actually know it is safe to do so?

My work requires me to be up and close and personal in people’s intimate space, to do physical therapy. Social distancing is not an option. Being closely exposed to the ill, untested, and possibly infectious public on a daily basis, without adequate protective gear was harrowing. There were nowhere near enough masks — cloth, surgical, N95’s, hah, forget it. I reused single use masks dozens of times, hoping against hope that the double layers of paper and fabric would offset the fact that these things weren’t designed to be used more than once. Not enough contact gowns, sanitizer, disinfectant, or disposable gloves (I was stuck using latex for weeks, and mildly allergic, my hands blistered, swelled, itched and bled). Everything was rationed, back ordered, conserved and reused. This gear was never intended to be used this way, because it doesn’t provide adequate protection when it is. Aware we had to do what we had to do, but the complete lack of concern for the increased level of risk this created for us - healthcare workers and our patients, just shocked me.

Family and friends rallied to find me non latex gloves and N95’s. I scoured the internet and found donations of these things and passed many along to my high risk co-workers. In the midst of this, (the first month after Covid-19 arrived in our state and was spreading shockingly fast) I spoke with my co-workers about out mutual concerns, and wrote a letter to our company detailing our concerns — lack of PPE, placing our patients at risk, lack of decent health insurance or any expanded safety net for us if we fell ill.

It is far past time for healthcare agencies to stop a moment in the profit counting and think about what that means. Health care. Having a care for the health of others — workers and patients. That is what healthcare is supposed to mean. The continued requirement for employees to work in this demonstrably hazardous environment without adequate compensation for the increased risk is immoral and unethical. We are being sent out, unprepared and untrained to face a viral pandemic into the frontlines of this, every day. We need some compensation and assurance that we in turn, will be cared for if and when we fall ill. I know this is not a problem unique to this agency, it is a national healthcare problem. We are in the midst of a national crisis, and it is in times of crisis that true character is demonstrated. The question is not so much what needs to be done, but who needs to do it.”

The response was crickets. The president of my company told my boss to get me to pipe down. No one else on the long list of board directors, executives and CEO’s of a major healthcare company bothered to respond at all. My life and that of my co-workers and patients, not worth the loss of profits, was the message I received.

If nothing else has been learned in the last year, I hope that America has learned that corporate culture is a blind, gluttonous monstrosity that cares nothing for employees or public health. Only for profits, and short term ones at that. Corporations and small businesses alike making it abundantly clear how little they value us - people - workers and families. It mystifies me that those watching bottom lines missed the fact that prolonging this pandemic ultimately negatively affects long term profits, (with the exception perhaps of Amazon). People too sick and too scared to leave their homes, aren’t good little consumers. Healthcare and essential workers too exhausted, afraid and stressed to go spend money they may need for their own medical bills and lost wages. Workers compensation is a cruel joke. The policy clearly states that employees must prove they were infected at work in order to qualify for coverage. How do we prove that without comprehensive testing and contact tracing — neither of which has been remotely successful — if one can even find a place to get tested at all. Not to mention that healthcare workers have the greatest exposure to sick people with substandard protection.

I hope this foolish capitalistic fallacy has been exposed for what it is. Those in the sole business of making money, as much money as possible, on the backs of the working class, do not pause for thoughtful and compassionate decisions regarding employees or public health. The wizard behind the curtain has been shown for the pitiful, small, selfish thing that he is — such beings don’t look out for the public interest, or public good, that is folly, dangerous and destructive folly at that. If anyone truly ever believed such a farce, the fog has clearly lifted, outlining how broken our system is for the world to see.

The global pandemic has exposed many of the fundamental cracks in our system — healthcare, government, worker’s rights — both in the US and around the world. We’ve learned that when new and deadly infectious disease breaks out, rather than use caution, restraint, and be briefly inconvenienced, we’d rather cross our fingers and see what happens, die who may. The systems in place to protect workers — OSHA and workers comp — failing at every turn. OSHA simply ignored existing safety standards and called employers to ask about compliance after thousands of workplace safety complaints were filed in my state. There was no independent investigation, oversight or consequences to address these complaints, just the honor system, over the phone, from representatives of corporations. Do we really find this acceptable?

It has become abundantly clear (if it wasn’t before) that there is no longer a system in place to protect workers and their health in the workplace when conditions become unsafe. It is now up to the discretion and morals of each and every corporation and private business to decide whether and at how much risk they will put their employees and the public, and what happens if anyone becomes ill because of their actions or inaction.

As a society we blindly assume that everything is going to be alright — even when we have absolutely no reason to think so. The sheer naivete and short-sightedness of this approach on a national level blows me away. Perhaps because of who I am and where I come from, the ideas of “just hope for the best” and “everything will work out” are inconceivable sentiments for me. That has not been my life experience. No one has ever come to save me, and no matter how hard I want things, they don’t magically happen or get better. I’m a realistic optimist, I know that the only one looking out for me is myself and my loved ones. To my mind, it is a position of foolish privilege to believe the world will look out for you when you don’t look out for yourself.

Not that this dark night of the American soul is without luminous moments of redemption and hope. Ample brilliant examples abound of humanity’s purpose on earth through this crisis — people making music, writing books, finding ways to connect over the internet, zoom and phone, reminding each other that we are still together, even when physically apart. I witnessed creative acts of love and solidarity in senior communities, where staff found ways to make lonely and scared people feel loved, heard and connected, even within strict safety restrictions.

Deeply honored to serve with and humbled by my co-workers, friends, fellow healthcare and essential workers everywhere who pick up their fear and fatigue in both hands and gird themselves for battle every single day. All continuing to work every day in spite of the risks to themselves and their families, and the knowledge that there is no safety net to catch them if and when they fall. I know of people volunteering to help home bound seniors get groceries and meds, line up vaccination appointments, and learn to use zoom so they could see their families. Facebook resource groups, networking and crowdfunding for medical bills and unemployed people who couldn’t get their claims filed or paid out for months. So many people, stepping up to help each other get through this crisis, in a myriad of ways, to demonstrate that we are not alone. We all matter, young, old, black, white, rich, poor, all valuable souls sharing this planet, and true community is only born of action.

People stepped up from all walks of life, showing caring and compassion for strangers, solidarity for each other, in the sea of masked faces across every community in this country. Feeling discouraged and exhausted last summer, at the persistent lack of empathy and intelligence shown by so many refusing to follow masking and quarantine restrictions; like a rainbow in my mind, suddenly I was aware of the opposite. Shockingly controversial, the wearing of masks and social distancing for a brief period of time (a year really is only a blip on the page of our lives) to save the lives of strangers was being embraced by many.

Though there were moments when I despaired of humanity’s ability to think a few steps ahead and of others beyond themselves — I am continually reminded by the sea of masked faces, how many good people are out there, who care about others, humanity and morality, and there are still a lot of us.

My hope is that we’ve learned from this. Learned healthcare needs to be about health, of both patients and workers, not about profits. Learned to be proactive in issues of national concern, rather than reactive. Learned how interconnected we really are — nationally and globally — what affects one of us will eventually affect us all. Learned that health and lives should never become a political issue, for it is a moral one. Learned that the lives of the working class have value, no matter how little we make, we make this country tick and we deserve better protections and compensation. And of course, we have all learned to keep toilet paper stocked in our cupboards as it is apparently the most valuable commodity in America.

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