As all of our minds are captured by COVID-19, we’ve seen heaps of support for all of the doctors, nurses, and other medical professionals who are on the front lines fighting this pandemic. While a lot of focus has rightfully been on making sure that they have sufficient personal protective equipment to keep them safe and support them in their work, one important safety consideration can sometimes get overlooked in times of crisis: fatigue.
We’re already seeing the tremendous toll—physical, mental, and emotional—that the coronavirus is taking on the world’s public health workforce. In China, more than 3,000 health care workers have been infected—and the death toll includes health workers who died not from the virus itself, but from cardiac arrest and other conditions caused by overwork and exhaustion.
As more cases of the disease emerge around the world, we can expect the strain on health care personnel to get worse. The combination of long shifts, understaffing, and high stress could compromise the immune systems of health care workers and make them more vulnerable to the disease—and other illnesses—than they normally would be. Fatigue itself can put medical professionals at greater risk of infection.
The chaos of coronavirus underscores the challenge that public health workers face in prioritizing their own wellness in the face of limited resources, often brutal hours, and seemingly endless demands on their bandwidth. These issues are not unique to times of crisis, but a chronic and worsening pattern in the field.
And it’s a pattern that can have devastating consequences—not just for the public health community but for that of the people they care for. We know that provider burnout is associated with an uptick in medical errors. And sick, exhausted health workers can lead to further staff shortages, longer hospital wait times, and poorer patient outcomes overall.
It’s critical that hospitals and other health care organizations have the resources they need to put enough boots on the ground, so that individual workers can take breaks to recharge, get some sleep, and stay well.
Check out this LA Times article that goes into greater depth on this issue: https://www.latimes.com/world-nation/story/2020-02-25/doctors-fighting-coronavirus-in-china-die-of-both-infection-and-fatigue