Struggling in the Time of COVID: Viewing the Pandemic Through the Eyes of a Frontline Health Care Worker

Disclaimer: The views presented here are of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of United Hospital Fund, its staff, or its board of directors.

Twelve months into what has become a devastating pandemic, a lot of the discussion has focused on the broader picture: the hope of effective vaccines, the rising death toll and hospitalizations, the soaring case rates. Americans are growing numb as we watch the figures increase daily and as leaving the house with a face mask on has become rote—at least for most of us. 

But the broader picture isn’t the only one that matters. Across the country, and here in New York, Americans are struggling with day-to-day issues that need to be acknowledged. As a frontline health care worker, I’ve been dealing with these issues not just at work, where I risk my life to care for others, but in my personal life as well.

To understand and begin to alleviate the extreme challenges facing so many Americans, there are several hard truths we must confront.

Schooling and Daycare

Being a frontline worker means I don’t have the luxury of working from home, as many Americans do. But with schools and daycares closing as we enter another spike in the pandemic, frontline workers are struggling to figure out how to care for their children. Whether you’re a health care worker, a grocery store employee, or any number of the other “essential workers,” juggling your job and parenting responsibilities has become exceedingly difficult. I know firsthand as a single mother of three young children, all under the age of 10.

Schools being closed means that children are learning remotely, which requires internet access and equipment like laptops and tablets. It also requires supervision. Not only that, but many teachers have no experience with remote learning, adding another challenge to an already difficult situation. Research has shown that many adolescents will lose academic gains because they’re staring at a screen instead of sitting in a classroom.

Likewise, the closure of daycare centers means that younger children—and their parents who are still going to work—lack resources that many families have long depended on. And those families who were used to having at least one parent caring for their child while the other worked now face a dilemma: job loss or an additional expenditure every month on hiring a qualified and trustworthy person to care for their child while they work.

Eviction Notices

The pandemic has also put a strain on Americans who now find themselves struggling to pay bills, whether because of increased medical costs, unemployment, or unexpected expenditures (such as daycare). The Aspen Institute estimates that between 30 and 40 million Americans are at risk of being evicted in the next several months.

This is in itself a public health crisis, one that will exacerbate COVID-19. Homeless shelters have already reached their breaking points across the country, and cities are struggling to ensure that those evicted or otherwise without a residence have the ability to stay safe and, more importantly, stay socially distanced. Homeless encampments have become COVID-19 hotbeds, endangering those living there and increasing exposure to others.

What makes this even more concerning is that as we enter the colder months, when other upper-respiratory illnesses like the common cold and influenza are more frequent, the pandemic will only continue to thrive. For those 30-40 million Americans who face the risk of eviction, it’s not only their property that’s at stake—it’s their life.

Hospital Safety

To put it simply, our hospitals are woefully underfunded as we continue to battle this pandemic. It’s increasingly clear that, despite our best efforts, we will continue to be inundated with new cases for quite some time.
The hardest hit are our “safety-net” hospitals—those serving our most disadvantaged communities, whether in a rural or urban area. Many of these hospitals were already desperate for funding before COVID-19, and sadly have only grown more desperate for federal assistance.

As we now endure another surge of the pandemic, these hospitals—our frontline defense against even more Americans dying—have surpassed their breaking point. The medical professionals who have worked tirelessly for months are increasingly burned out, creating staffing shortages that threaten to exacerbate what is already a dangerous situation. Without adequate federal support, our hospital system will not be able to support those who need it the most.

Please Be Responsible

There is so much suffering right now, but there is also one simple thing that can ameliorate the agony we are going through as a country: collective responsibility. Wear a mask when you’re out. Socially distance. Wash your hands thoroughly. Limit your social bubble.

These are unfortunate precautions, but we must take them. By doing so, we are not only protecting ourselves, but those around us as well. There will eventually be vaccines, but until then, being socially responsible is the best way to prevent more patients from filling my hospital beds.

A Federal Helping Hand

Is there a light at the end of the tunnel? I’m confident there is. We, as a society, must maintain vigilance. But vigilance is not enough. 

Those facing eviction, struggling to keep their kids educated or in daycare, or simply struggling to stay alive in an ICU need the help of our federal government. No matter how much I or my colleagues do, people will continue to die. But federal relief—including an extension of eviction moratoriums, unemployment benefits, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits, funding for hospitals, student loan relief, and general funding so that our state and local governments can provide the services their citizens so desperately need—will help right the ship and put us closer to managing this horrific pandemic.

Danyelle DiScala has been a social worker in New York City for 20 years and is a member of 1199 SEIU.

United Hospital Fund has a long history of bringing together diverse perspectives to address critical challenges in health care in New York. In the current crisis, it’s more important than ever to hear from all parts of the health care system. Today’s commentary from Danyelle DiScala, a social worker with 1199 SEIU, spotlights important day-to-day issues facing many Americans during the pandemic. – UHF President Tony Shih

Dec. 8, 2020