“I remember, along with other nurses in my workplace, feeling like canaries in a coal mine,” said Elizabeth Lalasz of the early days of Covid-19, when every shift was a scramble to figure out how to treat the new virus, protective equipment was scarce, and the world seemed to have ground to a halt—except for so-called essential workers.
Lalasz works at John H. Stroger Hospital, a public safety net hospital in Chicago, and is a member of National Nurses United. We first spoke at the height of the first Covid wave, when she and other nurses had just held a national day of action demanding proper safety equipment for frontline healthcare workers. When we caught up this past March, two years into the pandemic, she was recently off her third long stint on a Covid-only ward, and she was feeling ground down. “My unit is one of the more stable units, but at least half of our nurses have left, retired, become traveling nurses, or have just quit altogether,” she told me. New recruitment to offset this turnover is hampered by the fact that nurses who haven’t worked on a Covid unit before need to be trained. But the shortage is exacerbated because so many hospital workers are getting sick with the newer, more transmissible variants, despite being fully vaccinated.
In many respects, hospitals are sustained by greater confidence than they had at the beginning of the pandemic: they know how to treat their patients, and have better, if hard-won access to protective equipment and other safety precautions. But each new virus mutation brings fresh challenges, and the rush to lift restrictions and shorten quarantine times has left Lalasz and her coworkers feeling ever more invisible.
The coronavirus pandemic in the US is approaching a grim, world-leading milestone: one million reported deaths. Around the world, the total is over six million. We have become inured to the mind-boggling numbers, separated as they are from human faces. But the refusal to reckon with the losses, and failure to take time to mourn, will haunt us. This has not been simply a failure of individuals, but an aggregated political decision that has left untold numbers of workers like Lalasz to bear the grief and misery alone.
The isolation measures demanded by the highly contagious nature of the virus have largely hidden its effects from a great many people, unless they or an immediate loved one have been seriously ill. Hospitals have mostly banned visitors, and so healthcare workers have been alone with the sick. “You connect with people and you carry their pain and their frustration and their anger and their joy and all that sadness,” she said. “You’re their lifelines, and to have that level of responsibility is just so enormous. It shatters you at some point.”