Pandemic Causing Burnouts, US Public Health Workers Walk Away

The outcomes of a nationwide CDC survey of community health employees, which were revealed in July, were eye-opening. More than half of the more than 26,000 people surveyed who work in public health departments across the country said they had recently experienced signs of at least one serious mental health problem.

They had a 10 to 20 percent greater frequency of PTSD than primary medical staff and the broader population.

Pandemic Causing Burnouts, US Public Health Workers Walk Away

Several health care employees blame widespread overwork and dissatisfaction on a lack of collaboration from political leaders. Others claim that elected people have pressured them to change their conclusions to meet a political goal.

Pandemic Causing Burnouts, US Public Health Workers Walk Away

“When they didn’t like how our [statistics on] vaccine coverage by race/ethnicity looked, they literally requested me – the health department’s least senior member – to modify the data to artificially raise BIPOC categories,” claims a worker, epidemiology at a Connecticut health department. (Her identity has been withheld for fear of jeopardizing her employment.)

However, doctors are becoming increasingly resentful. Threats against public health workers have intensified since March. A furious audience targeted Dr. Faisal Khan, the assistant director of the St. Louis Department of Health, during a hearing on mask regulations this past July in a high-profile incident. Disaffected participants hurled racist slurs and mobbed Khan like an angry mob.

Just as the first wave of the epidemic hit, a worker (name not revealed) was operating in a public health emergencies unit in a big north-eastern American city. She remembers the spring of 2020 as a whirl of 24-hour shifts, despite the fact that her job was in public health policy research rather than treating Covid-19 patients on the front lines of the medical system.

She firmly believes that she and her co-workers have worked the same three full-time years in a year since March. She says, “There was no full-time work, no hazard pays.” Anxiety, melancholy, and stress-related physical ailments were all too common among her coworkers at the county health department where she worked. Despite her supervisors’ protests, she resigned this summer. She claims to be one of about 25 employees who have left the division since the outbreak began.

Her story isn’t one of a kind. The pandemic has proven disastrous for the mental wellbeing of health workers – the data analysts and policy consultants whose proposals are intended to define the nation’s epidemic – just as it has fueled a stress crisis among frontline medical personnel.

Before the outbreak, the public health staff was declining, but Covid-19 is speeding up the decline. More than 180 public health officials had been dismissed or quit from their positions in 38 states as of late last year.

The current number of public health resignations is likely to be significantly higher, especially when staff-level roles are considered. During this time, public health departments have encountered budget cuts and power issues.

A few in the public health field believe the pandemic’s death toll poses an existential danger to their profession.

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