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Pandemic takes toll on public health workers

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Kimmy Perez at MercyOne

Kimberly "Kimmy" Perez, an employee of the environmental services department at MercyOne Siouxland Medical Center, is shown putting on personal protective equipment at the hospital Jan. 13, 2021.

DES MOINES --  Like their counterparts in health care, working at hospitals and other care facilities, many public health workers are feeling the burden of the COVID-19 pandemic.

More than a year and a half into the pandemic, public health workers are feeling emotional and physical stress, and frustration, according to public health directors across the state.

“Are we tired? Yes, both physically and mentally,” said Jeremy Otto, public information officer for Cerro Gordo Public Health in Mason City. “But we are a resilient group. I’d say frustrated is where we are now. Frustrated at our vaccination rates. Frustrated that after 690,000-plus deaths in the U.S., there is a continued belief that this virus ‘isn’t a big deal.’ Frustrated that we have the tools to contain the spread of the virus, but instead of using them, in the last seven days 30% of positive cases are among those aged 17 and below --- kids, many of which have no choice but to remain unvaccinated, and we aren’t protecting them.”

For more than a year and a half, public health workers have been working to educate the public about COVID-19, ways to slow the virus’ spread, and about the vaccines created to combat the virus. Public health departments have set up testing and vaccination clinics in an effort to maximize programs designed to limit the virus’ deadly impact.

While they are not on the front lines of the battle against the virus in the same way as doctors, nurses and other health care staff, public health workers throughout the pandemic have experienced stress and trauma of their own, officials said.

More than half of state and local public health workers reported symptoms of at least one mental health condition in the previous two weeks in a national survey conducted recently by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Those conditions include depression, anxiety, suicidal thoughts and post-traumatic stress disorder.

And two-thirds of public health workers said they’ve experience burnout, according to another study, published earlier this year in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health.

“Public health workers are amazing people and continue to work day in and day out to protect the public’s health. That being said, this pandemic has taken an enormous toll on all of our staff,” said Brooke Barnes, deputy director of the Scott County Health Department. “They have experienced the emotional stress of listening to stories of COVID-19 illness and death when contact tracing for families; the workload of organizing large vaccination clinics with very limited amounts of vaccine; the overtime hours --- time away from their families --- while staffing clinics; and most recently, the deep sense of frustration as our community has become tired and weary of listening to the recommendations of public health while the pandemic rages on.”

As of Friday, COVID-19 had claimed the lives of more than 6,500 Iowans, and cases and hospitalizations were surging for a third time during the pandemic, this time reaching levels seen only once before, during last winter’s deadly peak, according to state public health data.

Just 63.7% of Iowans 12 years and older --- those who are eligible to receive the COVID-19 vaccine --- are fully vaccinated, according to federal data. That is just below the national average of 65.1% and 24th-best in the country. The leading states --- all of them in the U.S. northeast --- have between 78% and 79% of their eligible residents vaccinated.

One common stressor cited by public health officials on their workers is simple fatigue. Public health workers deal with COVID all day for work, then go home and often must continue to deal with the virus --- especially those with school-aged children.

“We’ve had instances of staff needed to take extended absences from work due to the stress of the situation,” Otto said. “We don’t get the opportunity to turn it off. Staff have to deal with COVID-19 all day at work, then pick their kids up and hear stories of how they were bullied at school because they wear a mask.”

Public health officials sometimes become the target of individuals who are upset with mitigation steps that are enacted, whether that be face mask or vaccine requirements, or social distancing efforts.

Kevin Grieme, health director for the Siouxland District Health Department, said staff have been instructed to avoid wearing identifying items --- such as agency name tags or apparel with the department’s name or logo --- while in public. He said there have been “a few situations” where individuals have targeted staff, but the policy is also to help workers avoid being engaged in public health conversations while they’re not working.

“We have had a few situations where comments have been targeted at them, but what normally happens is that individuals are looking for answers and want to have lengthy discussions,” Grieme said. “I recognize that staff need a break from COVID conversations and anything they can do to limit this is great.”

Grieme said the department has also stressed to workers the need to use their allotted vacation time.

“It is important that staff take their time to get away from work as a mental break to better care for themselves,” he said. “COVID fatigue is a real issue, but we always talk about COVID in the aspect that it is something that will not go away in the near future, so we need to learn how we are going to live with this.”

Maria Sieck, public health administrator for Pottawattamie County Public Health, said the department had planned a special event to thank county public health workers, but it was postponed due to the latest surge in COVID-19 cases.

“Our employees have remained strong through the pandemic efforts and continue to do so,” Sieck said. “We are planning an employee team building day for a much need break from the grind, and to say, ‘Thank you.’”

Public health officials said the best way anyone can help their workers is to get vaccinated.

“If you are 12 years of age or older, get vaccinated,” Otto said. “It is smart to have questions, so talk to your doctor. Trust the medical experts.

“Every phase, every study, every trial in the development of these vaccines was reviewed by the (federal Food and Drug Administration) and a safety board. They work, they are effective, and they will help us bring this pandemic to an end.”

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