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Despite improving conditions, COVID will ‘scar’ a generation of health care workers

On Thursday night, we looked at problems in Louisiana, where COVID-19 vaccination rates are lagging behind the rest of the country. William Brangham now turns focus to how vaccines have improved life dramatically in New York, but the toll on health workers may be permanent. Dr. Craig Spencer, the director of global health in emergency medicine at Columbia University, joins us for his perspective.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    During his remarks today, President Biden spoke of a better summer ahead for much of the country where vaccination rates are higher. And he warned of rising cases where vaccinations are lower.

    Last night, we looked at those problems in the South and several other states.

    Tonight, William Brangham focuses on how life has improved in one state where vaccinations rates are high.

  • William Brangham:

    Judy, New York state was hit as hard as anywhere in America by the COVID-19. During the worst weeks in April of last year, the state averaged nearly 1,000 deaths every day and over 10,000 hospitalizations.

    But now, with the rollout of vaccines, things have taken a major turn. Today, over 70 percent of adult New Yorkers have received at least one shot. And average daily deaths have dropped to 12 this week and new hospitalizations at around 1,000.

    For health care workers, of course, this is a hugely welcome change.

    For some perspective, I'm joined again by Dr. Craig Spencer. He is the director of global health in emergency medicine at Columbia University Medical Center.

    Dr. Spencer, very, very good to see you again.

    I don't know if you remember. You and I spoke 16 months ago in the midst of the worst of New York's pandemic. And the way that you described it then was this sort of relentless onslaught of very, very sick people coming through your doors…

  • Dr. Craig Spencer, Columbia University Medical Center:

    Right.

  • William Brangham:

    … and not enough PPE and the — just the overwhelming stress of all that.

    Given where you are now, compared to that, how — this must be just an incredible turn for you all.

  • Dr. Craig Spencer:

    Yes, well, quite honestly, this is a turn back to what we were used to. March and April of last year was a turn, for many of us, to what seemed like the apocalypse, this unending stream of patients so sick that they couldn't breathe or talk, needing oxygen, needing a ventilator.

    That, for us, was our abnormal, just like COVID became everyone's abnormal all over the country and all over the world. What we're seeing right now in the emergency department is our old normal. I'm seeing the old patients that I used to see, the ankle sprains and the chest pains and the strokes and all the stuff that we used to see before COVID came surging into our emergency rooms last March and April.

    And, quite frankly, it's nice to have our old job back.

  • William Brangham:

    Right? I bet that's got to be a real sense of relief.

    But I'm curious how you all have processed that, because the research is quite clear and all of our own experiences are quite clear that you don't go through a trauma like that unscathed, and it doesn't just wash off.

  • Dr. Craig Spencer:

    Right.

    I said this probably about a week or two after we chatted last year, that COVID was going to scar a generation of health care workers. Now, COVID had really only significantly impacted New York and the surrounding region by that time, but we have seen what it's done all over the country to health care providers, front-line workers everywhere around the U.S.

    And I stand by it. COVID will indeed scar a generation of health care workers. Look, there are friends of mine that have gotten sick with this virus. I have lost friends and colleagues to this virus. We know that 115,000 health care workers around the world have already died from COVID-19, and more are being added every single day.

    I think we processed this initially, after we were able to get over some of the physical exhaustion, the mental exhaustion hit. And when that tidal wave hit and then finally went back out to sea, we were able to assess the damage. And a lot of us still have mental health challenges, PTSD, the images of things that we saw and did and ways that we couldn't help when we wanted to.

    And that's going to linger with us. I think some of us have found healthy ways to manage that. And I still think that there are many amongst us who still deal with the impact of what we saw, what we did every single day, and will for quite some time.

  • William Brangham:

    I know you have colleagues elsewhere in the world, and you yourself worked in Guinea and fought Ebola there years ago.

    I wonder how you're balancing this, the reprise, in a way, that we're getting here, thanks to vaccines, while knowing that so many other countries around the world are on fire and are experiencing now what you have experienced back then.

  • Dr. Craig Spencer:

    Quite frankly, it's maddening to me. It's upsetting. It makes me so sad that what we have gone through here in the U.S. and the impact we have seen, 600,000 lives already lost in the U.S, and now we're opening back up and going back to normal. And we're all really excited about that.

    But the reality is, more people have already died of COVID-19 in 2021 than died in 2020. There will be friends, like my friends in East Africa or in West Africa and other places around the world, that might not see a vaccine until 2022 or maybe even later, because of hoarding in wealthy countries.

    The fact that we're buying up booster shots to have available in the fall and the winter in this year in case we need them, as friends of mine, health care workers around the world are still getting infected and still dying every single day because they don't have access to a vaccine.

    Now, I'm very excited that we're getting back to normal. I'm very glad to have my old job back. But I think we need to be thoughtful about the impact that this has had on health care workers and other front-line workers all over the world.

    When I was in West Africa treating Ebola, there were more health care workers, more doctors in the one hospital I was treated for Ebola in New York City than there were in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, the three countries hit hardest by Ebola in 2014, combined.

    And so losing a health care worker is always horrible, but in places where they're already in short supply, it's absolutely catastrophic for those communities. And we need to do everything we can to help protect them.

  • William Brangham:

    Right. That global perspective certainly is — makes our "success" — quote, unquote — a bit more bittersweet.

    Dr. Craig Spencer of Columbia University Medical Center, great to see you. And glad to hear you're getting somewhat back to normal. Thanks for being here.

  • Dr. Craig Spencer:

    Thank you. Thanks for having me.

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