After nearly two and a half years of working on a global pandemic — one that’s still spreading — health workers in Long Beach and across the U.S. are now dealing with another disease spreading through their communities: monkeypox.
Officials in the local health system say they’re ready to throw a punch or two.
The doctor in charge of COVID at Long Beach Memorial, Dr. “I don’t want to downplay the importance of burnout,” Graham Tse said. “Everyone is affected, but we support each other as a team.”
The coronavirus pandemic has taken its toll on Long Beach, with 1,308 related deaths and more than 145,000 cases reported as of Aug. 5 since its start. The disease has come in waves, with the worst occurring in the winter of 2020-21.
At the height of the pandemic, years of nursing shortages threatened to overwhelm the region’s hospitals, which were nearing capacity and often short-staffed. Since then, the severity of the coronavirus has ebbed and flowed — but never completely stopped to let health workers catch their breath.
“The demands on our people and their dedication to serve are unparalleled,” St. Mary’s Medical Center President Carolyn Caldwell said in an email.
Now, with monkeypox spreading rapidly after COVID cases, hospitalizations and deaths have just begun to decline, state, county and local officials declared a state of emergency last week. Since the first Long Beach case was reported on July 16, the number jumped to 25 on August 5 – an average of more than one new case per day.
“There is no panic, there is awareness,” Tse said of the atmosphere at the hospital. “We are working closely with the public health department, our epidemiology and infection prevention experts internally to educate our providers and staff and exercise caution.”
Tse said there is some overlap in symptoms for COVID-19 and monkeypox, so workers should take extra precautions until it is determined which illnesses they have. The hospital’s guiding principles are to ensure the safety of patients, visitors and staff, he added, so if there are concerns, patients are isolated until specialists make a definitive decision.
Caldwell said the healthcare industry has become accustomed to dealing with health emergencies since early 2020. Tse echoed Caldwell’s sentiments, adding that one silver lining of the coronavirus pandemic is greatly improved communication between hospitals and various local, state and federal health agencies.
“There’s more collaboration to make sure everyone’s on the same page,” Tse said.
Tse noted that medical workers have more advantages in the fight against monkeypox. First of all, this is not a new disease, but a disease that is well known to the medical community, unlike the new coronavirus.
When it first appeared, scientists and doctors didn’t even know how COVID-19 spread. That’s not the case with monkeypox, which spreads through up-close, personal, often skin-to-skin contact, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
In addition, a vaccine is now available for monkeypox. Tse urges everyone to get vaccinated against COVID-19 and anyone in appropriate, vulnerable groups to get vaccinated against monkeypox after consulting a doctor.
Tse said at the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic there was a shortage of tests and protective equipment for health workers – two issues that no longer existed. When the coronavirus vaccine was released, there was a limited supply – another problem today.
The monkeypox vaccine is somewhat limited because US supplies are running out. But production is going well and doses are being shipped across the country regularly.
However, one area of concern is that collective public health awareness has worsened during the coronavirus pandemic, Tse said. According to him, the shift from concern about general public health to only individual health is due in large part to widespread misinformation.
Before the pandemic, it was common for people to go to work, school and other public places despite having a cold or even the flu. However, this practice — the culture of being present and productive no matter what — is dangerous, and people should stay home if they feel unwell, Tse said.
“People … are tired of masking, of social distancing, of not living like they used to,” Tse said. “But we have to think of other people and consider their safety and concerns.”
“People need to restore compassion, kindness and empathy,” Tse said.
Although the risk of overload remains low despite two public health crises, Tse said the hospital will continue to offer staff resources — tips, apps and more — to combat the mental and physical effects of working during this historic moment.
“I have often thought [over] Last month: What’s the new normal here? “said Tse. “There is no new normal; it changes every day.”