Anxiety, Exhaustion, Nightmares: Study Highlights Pandemic's Toll on Health Care Workers

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A University of California, San Francisco study is shining a light on an overlooked effect of the pandemic: the mental health impact on first responders and emergency room workers.

The findings are troubling – nightmares, exhaustion and even PTSD.

"Approximately half of the participants in the survey study were found to have significant levels of anxiety and emotional exhaustion and burnout," UCSF Professor of Emergency Medicine Dr. Robert Rodriguez, who is the lead author of the study, said. "And then approximately about a fifth of the participants were at significant risk for post-traumatic stress disorder."

The study was done for the CDC and conducted last summer when much less was known about the virus.

Some 1,600 health care workers in emergency departments across the country participated.

Some of their biggest worries included getting their loved ones sick, contracting the virus themselves and patients with an unclear diagnosis who could get others sick.

"I wasn’t able to sleep much," UCSF Lead Nurse Research Scientist Hannah Jang said. "My dreams actually started incorporating the pandemic where people were wearing masks. And if people weren’t wearing masks in my dream, I could feel anxiety and fear that COVID would be rampant."

Jang helped with COVID-19 clinical trials and said during the early pandemic, she felt intense anxiety, but later a lot of insomnia and burnout.

"It’s important to recognize what happened in the past and the struggles that frontline providers had during that time so that we can be prepared for other pandemics and other natural disasters that can occur," Rodriguez said.

Rodriguez said the study is also an important reminder for hospitals and health care facilities to provide more mental health care support to their staff.

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