“See that Thanksgiving celebrations are restricted as much as possible so as to prevent another flare-up,” a news report warns. It is a message sure to have been repeated in various forms around the country in the weeks leading up to the holiday. Except this message is from a November 1918 edition of the Omaha World Herald. As shared by Grace Hauck of USA Today, it is a reminder that, more than a century ago, many Americans were under various quarantines and face mask orders not unlike those imposed today.
As Hauck reminds us, at the time, America was battling the second wave of an influenza epidemic that became known as the Spanish flu. It ultimately infected one-third of the world’s population and killed approximately 675,000 Americans. It finally subsided in the summer of 1919. “Every time I hear someone say these are unprecedented times (today), I say no, no, they’re not,” Brittany Hutchinson, an assistant curator at the Chicago History Museum tells USA Today.
Yet, as we close in on the end of 2020, let us pray that this year will never be repeated. While we are seemingly on the cusp of dispersing multiple vaccines to confront the current pandemic — finally, a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel — the future is also sure to view 2020 as one of the deadliest years in American history. As pointed out by Reuters, which is collecting data daily on COVID-19 infections and deaths for 240 countries and territories around the world, the United States still leads the world in the daily average number of new deaths reported. As of last week, 1 in every 14 deaths reported worldwide each day was in the U.S.
Is it any wonder that “pandemic” was just named by Merriam-Webster as its 2020 word of the year? Says Peter Sokolowski, editor at large for Merriam-Webster, to The Associated Press: “Often the big news story has a technical word that’s associated with it and in this case, the word pandemic is not just technical but has become general. It’s probably the word by which we’ll refer to this period in the future.”
It is safe to say that a lot more pandemic history is about to be written in the remaining two months ahead as hospitals in much of the country try to cope with unprecedented numbers of COVID-19 patients. According to an NPR report, as of last Sunday, 93,238 people were hospitalized with COVID-19, an alarming record that far exceeded previous peaks.
There to meet the surge are hospital first responders. After a nearly yearlong relentless slog of cases, it should not be shocking to learn that many of these health care specialists are running on empty, burned out mentally and physically. As noted in a recent New York Times report, “Surveys from around the globe have recorded rising rates of depression, trauma and burnout among a group of professionals already known for high rates of suicide.”
“Many have reached the bottom of their reservoir, with little left to give,” the Times goes on to say. “Especially without sufficient tools to defend themselves against a disease that has killed more than 1,000 of them.”
“Beds and space aren’t the main concern,” NPR’s Blake Farmer and Carrie Feibel write. “It’s the work force. Hospitals are worried that staffing levels won’t be able to keep up with demand as doctors, nurses and specialists such as respiratory therapists become exhausted or, worse, become infected or sick themselves.”
As pointed out by the Times, frontline health care workers have been the one constant in the face of this pandemic. They stand as “medical soldiers forming row after row in the ground war against the raging spread of the coronavirus.” As such, what have we done for them lately?
“Long gone are the raucous nightly cheers, loud applause and clanging that bounced off buildings and hospital windows in the United States and abroad — the sounds of public appreciation at 7 each night for those on the pandemic’s front line,” writes the Times’ Katherine J. Wu. “Health workers, once a central part of the coronavirus conversation, have in many ways faded into the background.”
It is time we place them front and center, where they belong. We are told that many were never comfortable with the hero label showered upon them. “The word ‘hero’ evokes bravery and superhuman strength but leaves little room for empathy,” Dr. Nicole Washington, a psychiatrist in Oklahoma, explains to Wu. She goes on to explain that with this depiction, health workers “don’t have the room or right to be vulnerable.” Washington reminds us that being on the front lines does not make health workers stronger or safer than anyone else.
“I’m not trying to be a hero. I don’t want to be a hero,” Dr. Cleavon Gilman, an emergency medicine physician in Yuma, Arizona, tells the Times. “I want to be alive.”
“Here’s the kicker,” Dr. Alex Jahangir, who chairs Nashville’s coronavirus task force, tells NPR in talking about the challenges faced by medical first responders. “They’re not getting infected in the hospitals. In fact, hospitals for the most part are fairly safe. They’re getting infected in the community.”
“I’ve been talking with a lot of my colleagues about how the public is saying, ‘Thank you for being on the front lines’, they’re writing us thank-you notes and sending us pizza,” Sarah Anderson, an OB-GYN in Colorado, recently explained to Time magazine. “We don’t need any of that. What we need is for you to stop exposing us.”
Speaking to NPR, Dr. James Johnson, a Nashville-based physician and Air Force veteran who treated wounded soldiers in Afghanistan, also stressed the point that the sacrifices made during this pandemic should not only come from our country’s health care workers. He believes that everyone bears a responsibility to try to keep themselves and others from getting sick in the first place.