Wave After Wave: Caring for Health Care Workers

With Oregon hospitals under strain facing yet another wave from the new COVID variant, I visited with hard-working nurses, doctors and medical staff in hospitals around our state, where I also held on-line town halls from Clackamas, Crook, Douglas, Jefferson, Josephine and Marion counties.

At those virtual town halls, I heard from Oregonians about the urgency of addressing some of our nation’s most pressing issues in addition to Omicron: protecting the right to vote, defending abortion rights, ending Big Pharma’s mugging of consumers at the cash register, tackling the climate crisis and its one-two punch of wildfire and drought, and fighting to ensure working families can keep food on the table. 

But as we close the first month of the new year, I am reminded once again that while this pandemic has taken a toll on all of us, it has landed especially hard on our state’s health care workforce for going on two years.

In spring of 2020, in the early days of the pandemic when the timeline of the virus was uncertain and vaccinations were not yet available, Oregonians showed our support for front line and health care workers with yard signs, discounts, free meals, and even evening “concerts'' of clanging pots and pans in my hometown of Portland and elsewhere. Those gestures were wonderful, but they were not enough to prevent hospital staffing shortages and high rates of burnout. And now as we approach the end of year two of this once-in-a-century health crisis, I am hearing from health care workers in Springfield, Roseburg, Medford and Grants Pass as well as Central Oregon and the Metro Area—often through frustrated tears—that what they need now is to work fewer overtime shifts sprinting at break-neck speed. They need an assured supply of PPE. And they need reliable staff rotations to be able to take breaks to recharge.

Oregon has deployed National Guard units to relieve administrative pressure on hospital staff, and Oregonians are grateful for that help. Hospitals are employing travel nurses from across the country to fill in the staffing gaps. But these measures are only temporary and are often expensive. And the workforce issues are not only plaguing emergency rooms and ICU units, but mental health services as well. I heard from young Oregonians at my online youth mental health town hall that they are struggling to find the mental health support they need to weather the pandemic and beyond. One young woman from the North Coast shared that her high school counselor is also the full-time English teacher and librarian. That is an impossible workload that is hurting our state’s youngest. We cannot continue to ask health care workers like these folks to burn the candle at both ends and be surprised when they burn out. 

Vaccinations, specifically booster shots, are the key to navigating this pandemic to get it in our rearview mirrors as soon as humanly possible. But our state’s health care workforce will still be in dire straits. While those of us in elected office continue to use our platforms to encourage everyone eligible to get vaccinated against covid-19, we also need to build policies that support the health of the people who care for the health of their communities every day. Health care workforces here in Oregon and nationwide deserve more than clanging pots and pans every evening. They deserve care of the same caliber and quality as they give every day on the job. And I will not rest until they get that support.