Stress and Burnout Still Plague Front-Line Health Care Workers as Pandemic Eases

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The interactions she has with Covid patients, many of them African American, often leave her shaken. She recalled a recent exchange with a woman in her 40s who was struggling to breathe. When Dr. Chopra asked whether she had been vaccinated, the woman shook her head defiantly between gasps, insisting that the vaccines were more harmful than the virus. The patient later died.

“It leaves me angry, frustrated and sad,” Dr. Chopra said. “These nonbelievers will never accept our viewpoint, and the result is that they are putting others at risk and overwhelming the health care system.”

The emotional fallout of the last 16 months takes many forms, including a spate of early retirements and suicides among health care providers. Dr. Mark Rosenberg, an emergency room doctor at St. Joseph’s University Medical Center in Paterson, N.J., a predominantly working class, immigrant community that was hit hard by the pandemic, sees the toll all around him.

He recently found himself comforting a fellow doctor who blamed himself for infecting his in-laws. They died four days apart. “He just can’t get past the guilt,” Dr. Rosenberg said.

At a graduation party for the hospital’s residents two weeks ago — the emergency department’s first social gathering in nearly two years — the DJ read the room and decided not to play any music, Dr. Rosenberg said. “People in my department usually love to dance but everyone just wanted to talk, catch up and get a hug.”

Dr. Rosenberg, who is also president of the American College of Emergency Physicians, is processing his own losses. They include his friend, Dr. Lorna Breen, who took her own life in the first months of the pandemic and whose death has inspired federal legislation that seeks to address suicide and burnout among health care professionals.

Most of the suffering goes unseen or unacknowledged. Dr. Rosenberg compared the hidden trauma to what his father, a World War II veteran, experienced after the hostilities ended.