The country’s hospitals are beginning to clear out as the omicron wave subsides, prompting states to drop mask mandates and loosen other public health restrictions — and fueling a fierce debate over when it’ll be time, or if it’s even possible, to put COVID-19 in the rearview mirror.
America’s health care workers, overall, are more likely to say the worst of the pandemic is behind us than they are to think the worst is ahead of us or happening now, according to a new Morning Consult/Axios survey that reveals a shift in how medical professionals are thinking about the pandemic’s trajectory and its long-term ripple effects on the industry.
“As health care providers, most of us have stopped imagining the end to a pandemic, and just decided that we need to start addressing and adjusting in the moment,” said Jennifer Schmitz, president of the Emergency Nurses Association and chief nursing officer at the health system Southern Maine Health Care.
Despite the uncertainty going forward, most health care workers said they think their facilities would be prepared for another COVID-19 surge, and that they’d have enough personal protective equipment to get through it. Capacity remains a concern, with roughly 1 in 2 health care workers saying their facility would have the room for a potential increase in COVID-19 patients.
Yet the relentless COVID-19 surges have also meant that other priorities have fallen by the wayside.
“The vaccination push, testing, all of those things, have made it difficult to do a lot of the other things” like staff flu shots and employee health initiatives, said Dr. Joshua Mann, director of the University of Mississippi Medical Center’s office of well-being.
Even so, medical professionals largely believe their industry has done its best to weather the pandemic, with roughly 4 in 5 saying they approve of how their coworkers, their employers and hospitals overall have handled COVID-19. That’s about on par with what they said in January 2021, in the early stages of the vaccine rollout.
The pandemic has “actually raised the magnitude of why we're here,” Mann said. “It's a big challenge that also comes with, I think, an increased sense of purpose.”
Health care workers don’t have the same sentiment toward the federal government’s response, though, with 44 percent saying they approve of how the Biden administration has handled COVID-19. Even so, that is considerably higher than the 30 percent who backed President Donald Trump’s pandemic response in January 2021.
The American people also received poor marks, in line with the January 2021 survey showing that most health care workers didn’t think the public was doing enough to respond to the pandemic. As of Monday, just 64.4 percent of the country was fully vaccinated, while clinicians say they’re facing an uptick in violent threats and harassment from patients, driven in part by misinformation around COVID-19 vaccines and treatments.
“Workplace violence was an issue long before the pandemic, but it has been made worse with the frustrations of the entire world,” Schmitz said. “You can't behave that way on an airplane — they don't let you. So why do we let them do that to health care workers?”
As policymakers and health care leaders reflect on the past two years and chart the next stage of the pandemic response, Schmitz said she wants to see a greater emphasis on clinician safety and support — regardless of whether a new, more dangerous variant puts the health care system back on high alert, or whether the virus begins to slip away.
“It's important to stop saying, ‘When this is over, we'll do X,’” Schmitz said. “COVID’s probably going to be here, in some way, for a period of time.”