Brian Howey: Pandemic burnout and ‘personal freedom’

By Brian Howey
For The Republic

“How are you doing today, Buddy?” the St. Vincent’s intensive care nurse asked me in late November 2019. To which I replied, “Why do you all call me Buddy?”

I was in the ICU suffering from a bilateral subdural hematoma in November 2019, just five months before the COVID-19 pandemic engulfed Indiana’s medical system. These nurses kept me alive. I remember thanking them for their care during my hospitalization, and I do so again almost two years into this unrelenting pandemic.

We’ve gone from a statewide lockdown in 2020, to universally available vaccines a year later. Now, only 50% of Hoosier adults have chosen to be vaccinated, fueling what is essentially a fifth COVID surge that portends to a third bleak winter. While many of us have resumed pre-pandemic lifestyles, these ICU nurses are still living in a hell that has seen more than a million Hoosiers infected and nearly 16,800 deaths.

It has to be deflating for nurses and doctors leaving crowded ICU wards filled with patients who opted not to protect themselves.

This comes as the Indiana General Assembly had planned a Monday, Nov. 29 session to pass legislation that “ends the public health emergency” declared by Gov. Eric Holcomb. But this public health emergency is not over. As of Nov. 23, the CDC had recorded 386,233 COVID deaths in 2021, compared with 385,343 in 2020. This surge in deaths this year are more than 90% among the unvaccinated.

Indiana COVID hospitalizations rose more than 31% in mid-November, according to the Indiana State Department of Health. Hospitals in Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota are swamped and summoning their National Guards for assistance. Former U.S. surgeon general and Indiana state health commissioner Jerome Adams says a winter COVID-19 surge in Indiana isn’t a matter of “if” but “how bad.”

General Assembly leaders ultimately pulled back. Senate President Rodric Bray said “ongoing complexities of the issues raised and the potential unintended consequences” have prompted him and House Speaker Todd Huston to delay legislation until January.

Holcomb and President Biden will not impose another shutdown. Biden has opted for a widely criticized testing mandate for employees of companies numbering more than 100 workers if these workers do not vaccinate.

Meanwhile, the state and nation are hemorrhaging medical workers. According to a Morning Consult Poll this past week, 18% of health care workers have quit their jobs during the COVID-19 pandemic, most citing burnout. Among health care workers who have kept their jobs during the pandemic, 31% have considered leaving, while 79% said the national worker shortage has affected them and their workplace.

“Our nurses and our caregivers have been battling this for 18 long, long months and they are getting really burned out. They are getting exhausted,” Dr. Ram Yeleti, chief physician executive for Community Health Network, told WTHR-TV.

Dr. Adam B. Hill of Riley Hospital for Children told WRTV, “It just felt like this exhale of tears, of anxiety, worry, fear of the uncertainty, some anger, a little bit of emotional exhaustion that our wells of empathy that we pour out every day are running dry.”

Memo to General Assembly Republicans: There’s more than “personal freedom” at stake here. Taking the long view, once this terrible pandemic ends, would best serve all Hoosiers.

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