Are We Healthcare Heroes or Doomsayers?

Don S. Dizon, MD


August 11, 2020

I wish I could say that I've watched the current war on public health from the safety of my own personal bubble, that the fight over masks and social distancing has not touched me personally.

Don S. Dizon, MD

But that would be wrong. My daughter is 18 years old, and I've borne witness to what this has done to her and other young adults who are anxious to get on with their lives after the loss of senior-year rites of passage, such as prom and graduation. She and her friends have listened to voices on social media that question the data over whether COVID-19 is a risk to young people. My attempts at discussing the importance of masks and physical distancing have often been met with an eye roll. It's almost as if she does not believe the rhetoric, and worse, does not believe me. Sometimes, even my own adherence to CDC guidelines is called into question. After all, I am still going to work and not in quarantine when I get home.

In spring, I watched with a mixture of pride and anxiety as physicians like myself, and especially my colleagues working in emergency rooms and ICUs, were declared heroes for putting ourselves at risk for infection yet showing up to work every day.

We have been helping patients in some of the most difficult situations imaginable: hospitalized, struggling, with many dying alone. We have become their connection to the outside world, holding mobile devices that bring loved ones to their bedside and even being the last face they see — one covered in personal protective equipment. "Healthcare heroes." That's what they started calling us.

Three months later, and things are worse. The virus shows no signs of abating. In response, public health experts have recommended masks in addition to physical distancing and handwashing, but instead of a national embrace of these recommendations, there has been controversy. Even though the majority of Americans know the pandemic is real and follow the guidance, there are still individuals who insist on exerting their "personal freedom" and refuse to wear masks; others who congregate in bars and large parties; and some who talk of the pandemic as a vast conspiracy.

Clinicians and public health experts doing their job — promoting safety guidelines, calling attention to the risks of COVID-19 — are called out; threatened; and, at its most extreme, attacked. In parts of the United States, we are no longer heroes; we are sheep.

Most recently, my concerns have turned to the fall. My daughter is supposed to start college in South Carolina. I'm like many of my colleagues who are preparing — or not — to send their kids to school. But South Carolina is a COVID hotspot, with more than 93,000 confirmed cases and more than 1700 deaths recorded thus far. The percentage of South Carolinians testing positive for COVID-19 is 18.3%, far above the 3% threshold traditionally considered to be a more acceptable level. As a healthcare worker, I cannot help but wonder: How can any college in this state feel that it is safe to open up their campus and let students enroll?

It's bad enough that infection rates are so high, but were my daughter to get sick and be admitted, can they guarantee that she would be cared for? If she needed to be intubated, would there be a ventilator for her?

These aren't thoughts I try to dwell on. I know if this were to happen, she would be all alone. I wouldn't be able to stay with her, hold her hand, and tell her, "Don't give up." It would be up to the kindness of the healthcare heroes treating her to represent us, to show her compassion and encouragement, and be our lifeline.

I have made no secret of my concerns for her safety. I've even told her she should attend virtually this fall. It is my job to do everything I can to keep her safe.

But she feels like many others: Delaying the rest of her life is simply not an option. So she plans to move to campus. She plans to live in the dorms. She plans to attend in-person classes. As her parents, we've decided that we will accept her choices. The bottom line is that her school is open and making plans to welcome the freshman class, albeit with new policies on testing and tracing.

Over the past few months, I've felt that I must speak up about the nightmare that is COVID-19 and to reinforce that masks are a means of mitigating risks. I make TikToks, trying to re-envision masks not as a political lightning rod but instead as a fashion accessory. I retweet and share voices on Twitter that I feel illustrate where we really are in this pandemic.

As time has passed, however, I don't feel much like a hero. Clinicians and public health experts at every level have become targets of a very vocal minority. To them, we are the bearers of bad news, the pessimists and doomsayers, those who argue for isolation and against freedom.

As for my daughter and the broader class of 2020, I'm not sure how they see us. But as a father, I hope they don't ignore public health evidence and stay safe.

Don S. Dizon, MD, is an oncologist who specializes in women's cancers. He is the director of women's cancers at Lifespan Cancer Institute and director of medical oncology at Rhode Island Hospital.

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