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New report reveals COVID's toll on the mental health of frontline doctors and nurses

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

We know the pandemic has taken an immense toll on frontline health care workers. A new report by the Department of Health and Human Services confirms that and reveals the depth of distress throughout the health care system.

NPR health correspondent Rhitu Chatterjee is here to tell us more. Hi, Rhitu.

RHITU CHATTERJEE, BYLINE: Hi, Ari.

SHAPIRO: So depths of distress - what exactly does this report show?

CHATTERJEE: You know, we've heard so much about health care workers being burned out, but this report really shows that it's way beyond burnout. Many of frontline health care providers are reporting symptoms of depression, anxiety, PTSD, especially those who spent more time treating COVID patients.

And I spoke with Health Secretary Xavier Becerra. He said he was recently in Jacksonville, Fla., meeting with some health care workers, and here's what he heard.

XAVIER BECERRA: We heard from a nurse who said that twice he suffered strokes during the pandemic. He never really stopped working except, of course, to take care of the strokes. But this is the type of load that health care workers had.

CHATTERJEE: And, you know, providers are still reeling from two years of this, and many have quit their jobs.

SHAPIRO: And, of course, those staffing shortages made the experience for those still working on the front lines even more difficult.

CHATTERJEE: Exactly. Exactly. And the report talks about it quite a bit. First of all, it acknowledges that the staffing shortage was serious even before the pandemic. And throughout these past couple of years, it's just gotten worse, reaching a peak last January when 22% of hospitals reported critical staffing shortages. And we know that the nursing homes and long-term care facilities, of course, have been very badly hit. But the health secretary also pointed out that while many providers have quit their jobs, a significant number were either furloughed, had their hours cut back or were just let go.

BECERRA: I think over 10-, 15% of those who were reported being unable to work, it was because it was their employer who had closed or lost business due to the pandemic back in 2020.

CHATTERJEE: Now, you know, employment levels have improved since then, but health care workers are still very much struggling.

SHAPIRO: And so how are people in health care receiving this report?

CHATTERJEE: So I asked that question of Dr. Jessica Gold. She's a psychiatrist at Washington University, St. Louis, and she works a lot with health care workers. And Gold says that frontline providers feel like their concerns, their mental health issues are being dismissed by those in positions of power in their industry and society at large. So this report from the government is a good thing.

JESSICA GOLD: I think it's validating for people to see a government say, this is a problem; you're not making it up; it has been hard for you, and we see it.

CHATTERJEE: And, you know, Gold herself received a federal grant recently to address the problem, to connect doctors and nurses at her hospital system - to connect them more easily to mental health care. But she says ultimately, it's really lawmakers and health care systems that really have to take this up seriously and address those underlying causes - underlying systemic causes of stress like the staffing shortages.

SHAPIRO: So what does the report say about solutions?

CHATTERJEE: So it lists the investments the government has made already in addressing the problem, like the grant money that's gone to, you know, researchers and professionals like Dr. Gold. It talks about pandemic relief money that's gone directly to providers.

And I asked the health secretary about what he's prioritizing. And he said HHS is taking up the staffing issue and starting with nursing homes, which were particularly hard hit by the pandemic.

SHAPIRO: That's NPR's Rhitu Chatterjee. Thank you.

CHATTERJEE: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOSE GONZALEZ'S "INSTR.") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.