“A year ago, we’re health care heroes, and everybody’s clapping for us,” Dr. Stu Coffman, a Dallas-based emergency room physician, told the Associated Press. “And now we’re being in some areas harassed and disbelieved and ridiculed for what we’re trying to do, which is just depressing and frustrating.”
Coffman isn’t alone. Thousands of health care workers nationwide have reported abuse. Due to pandemic stress, burnout, and constant violence, some are even leaving their jobs—resulting in widespread hospital staff shortages nationwide.
According to data compiled by the CDC, nearly a quarter of public health workers said they felt bullied, threatened, or harassed because of their work since the pandemic began. Additionally, of the 26,174 public health workers surveyed across the U.S., 23.4% said they’d been threatened or harassed, and 11.8% said they’d received job-related threats.
“I get threatened every day at work,” Tom Kelsch, an emergency department nurse, told the Michigan Advance. “They say, ‘I know where you live; I’ll be visiting you.’ They say they’re going to come and kill me; they say, ‘I know where you park and what you drive.’ It’s pretty awful what we deal with. I’ve been spit on.”
While Kelsh shared that such incidents are not new to him and that even patients facing extreme and life-threatening pain can lash out, he noted that the violence has increased during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I started working in the [emergency room] 11 years ago, and every year it was slightly getting worse with patients verbally assaulting us, physically assaulting us — but since the pandemic started, it has gone up tenfold,” he said.
While assaults on health care workers are not a new phenomenon and have been a concern for years, hospitals nationwide have reported higher rates of violence since the start of the pandemic. Some hospitals have even resorted to supplying staff members with panic buttons in light of the situation. A Missouri hospital provided its employees with panic buttons that immediately alert hospital security after assaults on health care workers increased drastically, the Associated Press reported.
According to a February report by the Geneva-based Insecurity Insight and the University of California, Berkeley’s Human Rights Center, more than 1,100 threats or acts of violence against health care workers or facilities were reported in 2020. Almost half of those attacks were related to COVID-19, researchers found.
Health care workers are attributing the rise to misinformation about the pandemic and its “miracle” cures.
“When our staff experiences cursing, screaming, physical abuse, ‘I am going to get my gun,’ a knife pulled on them—it is terrifying,” Jane McCurley, chief nurse executive for Methodist Healthcare System, told local CBS affiliate KENS 5. McCurley noted that hostility mainly came from guidelines for masking, visitation policies, or wait times.
The situation is even worse for Asian American health care workers, who face hate not only because of their profession but also for their race, thanks to heightened xenophobia and racist messaging attributed to the pandemic in conservative circles. One Filipino American registered nurse and a specialist in nursing informatics in Floral Park, New York, told CNN that the rise in crimes against both health care workers and Asian Americans made her feel unsafe, prompting her to stop taking public transportation and begin carrying pepper spray.
While Kathleen Begonia shared that she’s experienced racism her whole life, she said it is disheartening that those she treats could be her perpetrators. “I actually signed up to take self-defense classes because I still carry my childhood experiences of racism with me,” Begonia said. “I don’t trust that anyone else can take care of me, not even police, so I make sure that I can defend myself. I run every day and keep fit in case I need to defend myself.”
“Thinking about how we are nurses taking care of anyone who comes into the hospital—it can be infuriating. The very people who insult us in public can also become vulnerable themselves and require our care,” Begonia said. “So, when I see people hurting the Asian American community, it saddens me because we are also your health care providers.”
Health care professionals outside of the hospital are also facing hate and threats with anti-maskers and anti-vaxxers threatening and attacking them just for encouraging children to wear masks in schools. Health care workers should not have to face violence for saving individuals and helping to stop the spread of a pandemic.