COVID Takes a Toll on Public and Individual Health

By Lance Chilton

Have any of you watched Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham’s Wednesday afternoon briefings on COVID in New Mexico?  

For me, two things stand out: (1) the governor’s willingness to bring in experts to share their knowledge and help shape her approach to minimizing the effects of the pandemic virus, and (2) the scurrilous remarks scrolling down the right side of the Facebook page as she speaks, comparing her with Hitler or worse. 

In any case, the governor and her advisors and the tireless staff at the Department of Health and the Human Services Department have endured all sorts of behavior from politicized bands that believe we’re infringing on their “freedoms” by attempting to protect the public. How did protecting citizens’ well-being get to be such a politicized topic?  Do we infringe on people’s freedoms by not allowing them to drive on the left side of the road?  Unfortunately, this politicization has made hard-working health care workers’ lives even more difficult during the pandemic.

I wrote about effects on nurses and other front-line health care workers in a recent Blue Review issue, quoting a nurse who spoke of the despair she felt caring for dying, flown-in COVID patients at an Albuquerque hospital. But nurses aren’t the only health care workers affected: A CDC report published in June gave results of a survey this spring of more than 26,000 public health workers as to how they’re doing through the stresses of the pandemic.

Public health is that much-neglected part of the American health care system, as compared with individual health. Public health helps prevent infectious disease (including through contaminated water and food), helps to control environmental hazards’ effects on our health (think lead in Flint, Michigan or Los Angeles and smog). The public health part of the system provides support to families, and promotes and distributes vaccines, among other things. Individual health takes into account one person and her/his individual illnesses and conditions. The ranks of staff at NM’s DOH were decimated by the previous governor’s administration, which has contributed to the stress on those remaining as Governor Lujan Grisham strives to rebuild.  But that’s another story.

The CDC survey found that 53% of the 26,000+ respondents reported symptoms of at least one of the following mental health problems: depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, suicidal thoughts.  In general, these aren’t the people who are seeing patients die, unable to breathe from COVID, but those who are planning testing and immunization for the disease, tracing contacts of the sick, making the websites, and better and better over the past 515 days.  They’ve been working long hours, often without the thanks and pot-banging awarded to front-line health care workers. The CDC survey showed that both long hours and involvement in the COVID response made things worse for the public health workforce’s mental health. Of course, neither front-line health nor public health workers would denigrate the work of the other group–both groups know that each has been vitally important to making life less dangerous during this seemingly endless pandemic.  Both groups have been highly stressed and both groups have been extremely important to our remaining relatively better off during these long months.  Both groups deserve our honor and respect.