As COVID-19 began to spread around the world just under a year ago, University of New Mexico Hospital employees knew they would be seeing patients flooding the halls of the wards, and quickly.
Residents felt a mix of fear and pride as they prepared to face what would likely be the largest and most shocking wave of disease and illness they would see in their careers, creating a daily physical and emotional hurdle for doctors and patients alike.
“This is it — this is my cause that I get to fight for,” Dr. Jessica Evans-Wall, a second year resident, said.
Still, there were many unknown variables to COVID-19, as there still are, and employees were there to help as best they could.
“There was this big tinge of fear and of nerves. There was this unknown at the beginning where we thought that our PPE hopefully worked, but nobody really knew,” Evans-Wall said. “We weren’t sure what kind of procedures we should be doing in full PPE versus just seeing patients who had a cough — do we need to isolate them? There’s just so many unknown pieces, so there’s a fear of getting COVID yourself … And I was also afraid of bringing home illness to (my partner).”
Evans-Wall said there was a sort of emotional barrier between doctors and patients based on what separated the two groups: the sick and the healthy. But when the coronavirus hit, the possibility of the doctor becoming the patient was much more real, and that wall fell. When Evans-Wall knew a colleague that contracted the virus, the shock hit again.
“Everything can be very fleeting, and we have these established roles in our head of ‘Well, that’s a patient, so that’s not me,’ and there’s this distance,” Evans-Wall said. “But then when you know a few health care providers that have gotten sick ... it only takes one or two cases for you to (realize) ‘Oh my gosh, that’s one of us ... It could be me.’”
The Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania released a study last May to determine just how at risk frontline COVID-19 workers are.
“Physicians who were more likely to have been on the frontline of COVID-19 care, namely emergency medicine, critical care specialists and anesthesiologists, comprised only 7.4% of the deaths in this cohort,” Penn Medicine reported.
Day-to-day life was changed, in some ways for the better and in many ways for the worse.
“It’s not the big moments. It’s not the moments where you intubate a patient who is COVID-positive, right, because in that moment you’re just like ‘Okay, I’m in hopefully a little bit more of a flow state, I’m focusing on the bigger picture,’” Evans-Wall said. “It’s those moments of like 'It’s time for me to go eat food, how do I go about that? How do I make sure that I don’t touch anything? That I hand sanitize and wash my hands enough? Do I have any viral particles on my face somewhere?’ It’s those little in-between moments, I think, that ended up being the most exhausting.”
And then the vaccine arrived in New Mexico. Evans-Wall was one of the first to receive it in phase 1A, getting her first shot on Dec. 16 and her second on Jan. 6.
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“Never have I been so excited to feel crummy,” Evans-Wall said, reflecting on her side effects that included a sore arm, headaches and feeling feverish.
Evans-Wall verified that no safety procedures have changed because she and others have been vaccinated, but the fear of contracting COVID-19 has all but lifted, allowing her to invest more of herself in her work.
However, many individuals don’t trust the safety of the vaccine and are not so quick to take it.
“It’s difficult knowing who you can trust and what information is accurate,” UNM Student Health and Counseling’s health promotion team wrote in a letter to students, staff and faculty assuring that these feelings are natural but the vaccine is safe to take.
Conspiracy theories continue to circle the pandemic and the vaccine, claiming that the coronavirus is a hoax and the vaccine is a way for the government to control you. Wiley Online Library attributed this to the vast extent of social media.
“A key difference between COVID‐19 and the 1918 flu pandemic, which is sometimes used as a reference, is that a highly interconnected world, to a great extent on social media, is setting the stage for distributing information and misinformation about COVID‐19,” the Wiley editorial board wrote.
Evans-Wall dismissed these claims immediately and said too much focus is on the conspiracy theories and not enough focus is on the actual science.
“The overwhelming information to date is that the approved vaccines are safe, can help save many lives and can eventually control the pandemic so that our society can return to a more normal level of functioning,” the SHAC promotion team wrote.
Many believe that former President Donald Trump contributed to the spread of misinformation. Kaiser Health News concluded that Trump was responsible for 38% of the false information surrounding COVID-19.
“I think it’s utterly ridiculous that politics enter into this, and it makes me sad that we can’t just respect the incredible advances that occurred over the last year in order to make this vaccine possible,” Evans-Wall said.
According to Evans-Wall, if every person felt the firsthand weight of the emotional and physical damage that the pandemic has wrought, then there would be no hesitation to take the vaccine.
“I am tired of calling family members and telling them that they will basically never see their loved one again,” Evans-Wall said. “I’m tired of having those conversations on the phone where I have to say ‘You can’t come in and visit until they’re dying, but they will probably be dying in the next few days to few weeks, and there’s really limited things we can do for them.’”
Megan Gleason is the culture editor at the Daily Lobo. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @fabflutist2716