And I know you’re all looking for a recipe – this is a recipe blog, after all. But I’m going to take the next post (or two, or three, or ten) for myself. I’m well aware that I may lose followers (if, indeed, any of you still exist out there) or have some other backlash that I am completely unaware of but I think it’s time to take the advice of my really good friend Kim and purge some of the anxiety that I’m going through right now.
This is maybe not going to be a happy post – it may even be downright depressing. So be warned before you proceed. This is going to be a post where I work on just expressing how I’m feeling, acknowledging the realities of my situation, and attempting to cope with the overwhelming strain of the situation I’ve been thrust into. This is probably 100% going to turn into a stream-of-consciousness post and now you’ll get to learn that I’m not necessarily that great at writing. So good luck if you decide to read. If not, this was really for me, anyway.
As some of you know I work for my state public health laboratory. I’m a microbiologist who started working in microbiology in 2007. I’ve held a variety of jobs within that field but I specialize in infectious diseases that have a high mortality rate. I’ve studied the immune response to and infection mechanisms of those types of diseases for 13 years. I’ve specifically worked in public health for over 8 years and have specialized in diseases that cause outbreaks or have high mortality rates. I’ve been a part of the flu response nearly every year, was a part of the Ebola testing team during the Ebola crisis a few years ago, and was the head of the tuberculosis program for my state for over a year. I’ve had entire semester-long classes dedicated to vaccine study and have been trained in epidemiology and epidemic and pandemic response. I’ve also spent the last few years programming data tracking systems for my state and working with the CDC and Association of Public Health Laboratories on data transfer and collection between entities. So to say that the current COVID-19 crisis is literally my area of expertise is an understatement. I have been trained for a pandemic of this nature for over 13 years. Everything I know, everything I have been taught, has prepared me to understand and extrapolate data and information in a very real way.
And yet, being trained for this situation has placed a burden upon me and my coworkers that very few people in our modern time have ever had to bear. Every public health expert, every laboratorian, every healthcare worker assigned to COVID-19 has been given the burden of the world to carry on our shoulders and, at first, it was easy to bear. We were praised (well, not us scientists as much as the doctors and nurses, but we pretended like we were praised along with them), we were deferred to as experts, people trusted us and believed us and were willing to sacrifice for the good of the people around them.
But then things got harder and we were asked to continue to bear a burden no one should be asked to bear. We’ve been asked to work obscene amounts of overtime with, in the case of my state, no overtime pay. We aren’t even paid for hours over 80 per 2 week pay period – we earn “comp time”, which is essentially PTO we can use at a later date… What later date? It expires every 6 months and, well, if you haven’t noticed the pandemic hasn’t let up enough to allow us to take that time off. So our overtime hours expire and we’ve worked 60+ hour weeks for 5 months straight for nothing. And when we ask when we will have relief – a day off, extra help, or even just not having to work 7 days a week anymore the answer is always “when the pandemic is over”. Which could take up to 2 or 3 more years… So what we’ve been told is that, in 2-3 years from now, we won’t be breaking ourselves anymore. Trust me – we’ve already broken.
But still it felt okay – we had people praising us (or, at least, the healthcare professionals) and people still looked to me for answers. I am the expert, after all. The ACTUAL, REAL expert. Until that wasn’t what happened anymore. People in public health started receiving death threats for trying to protect people by mandating masks. A stupid, simple thing – just wearing masks. No shoes, no shirt, no mask, no service. There is NO DIFFERENCE between not being able to shop naked and not being able to shop without a mask. Yet multiple public health experts have been forced to resign because the death threats got to be too much. There have been threats coming to my team, my coworkers, to the testing site collection teams, to the people who are still putting their lives and their physical and mental health on the line to protect the public. Because of any and all possible stupid reasons you can think of. Because people are scared and selfish and inconsiderate and think that threatening us will make a plague go away.
And then the threats on our jobs have started coming down from politicians. Public health experts have been removed from their positions because they pushed back against the politicians. My job, and the job of my coworkers, is threatened if I don’t complete irrational projects by insane due dates. The politicians know this is an election year and demand more than we can possibly give. And all we are trying to do, all we have ever tried to do, is our best. Working long hours, giving up our health and sanity and personal connections, barely surviving isn’t good enough to those in the ivory tower who care more about their image than their employees. And that doesn’t even cover the discrediting that is being done by major politicians against the public health experts who are trying to avert an even worse tragedy than we’ve found ourselves in. We’re doing our jobs and getting absolutely hung, drawn, and quartered by the politicians and the citizens we are trying to protect.
But that’s okay, right? As long as our families are here to support us… Well too bad that train pushed us off the rails a few months ago, too. When they started questioning my expertise with their favorite news channel’s host guessing at what things mean. Or insisted that the knowledge of someone in any old scientific field was equal to mine. Or want to stop me right there, I obviously haven’t considered the impact these measures have had on one aspect of life or another. When the lack of trust, the attempts to discredit me, and lack of care so many of them have shown for me began to happen was the day I truly broke under the strain. It was the day I realized that most of my relatives had completely ignored me, and almost no one had attempted to check up on me, though I constantly tried to check in with them to make sure everyone was armed with knowledge and knew someone was thinking about them.
That was when I felt the last reserve of my strength drain. Going from being the hero to the villain in a story is unpleasant. Especially when nothing has changed – I’m still trying to carry the burden of the pandemic, along with my coworkers and fellow healthcare workers, just the same as I was in April. The truth and the scope of the pandemic has not changed. NOTHING HAS CHANGED on our side. What has changed is the rest of you. I’m exhausted, mentally and physically, from fighting – fighting misinformation, social media, the news, the public, the protesters, the threats, the bosses bosses, the politicians, and my own relatives. I’m fighting so hard to protect people and I just keep getting thrown to the ground and under the bus, over and over again.
This is easily one of the worst tragedies of modern history. over 130,000 Americans have died from COVID-19 since February. You know the last time 130,000 people died from an event in the US? World War II. Though, the US involvement in World War II lasted 4 years and had a total of 405,000, which brings the average deaths per year to about 100,000. COVID-19 has already surpassed that average in 5 months. And, if we aren’t lucky and people continue to ignore the true scope of this pandemic, it’ll definitely surpass the total number of deaths from WWII. If we do, in the next few years, surpass 405,000 deaths from COVID-19 in the US that will make this current pandemic the deadliest event to happen in US history since the 1918 Great Influenza. The worst thing that has happened for over 100 years. Think about that.
Can we all try to be a little kinder and more considerate of the people who are trying to prevent this from becoming the biggest loss of life the US has ever seen? Can we stop being so callused to the fact that this is not going away and resolve to change our behavior for the long run in an effort to save people? If you realize this is the worst thing that has happened in 100 years maybe we can all resolve to adjust our lives for the meaningless time frame of a few months, a year, two max, to protect each other. I bet, if you promised to help shoulder some of this burden, I’d feel mine to be a little less. And then maybe I could get the good night’s sleep I haven’t had since February.