Unwinding Covid

The pandemic emergency may be over, but trauma among Long Island Jewish Valley Stream health care staff lingers


Two years ago, Dr. Salvatore Pardo was an outspoken believer in the importance of mask-wearing and federal Covid safety guidelines. Nowadays, he keeps any medical opinion about existing Covid safety protocols to himself. And, eager to get on with a new sense of normalcy, he says the pandemic is not a topic he’d like to revisit anytime soon.

Ask anyone, and chances are they share that feeling — the feeling of being over with Covid. 

As the pandemic took hold, Pardo knew firsthand the grueling working conditions that strained frontline workers’ mental and emotional limits. The Long Island Jewish Valley Stream hospital, where Pardo is chairman of emergency services, became a main stage where the war against the virus was waged — as did thousands of hospitals and medical centers across the country.

Over three years after the pandemic’s onset, the prevailing sense of anxiety that defined the first wave of coronavirus at the hospital is no longer there, Pardo noted.

Hospital administrators say the volume of Covid-19 patients at LIJ Valley Stream has thinned considerably.

“The number of Covid patients at any one time has fallen to single digits,” said Executive Director Jason Tan. “We have since removed the mandate for masks, and we no longer have dedicated units for Covid.”

While hundreds of people still die from the virus every day, nationwide hospitalization and death rates are on a downward trend, a reality that led the White House to declare an end to a public health emergency on May 11.

“The pandemic is over,” said Pardo. “We have a much greater understanding of what Covid-19 is. We know how to identify those with the virus. We have testing and treatment to combat the virus at the ready.”

But moving on is not entirely possible for Pardo and his fellow healthcare workers, due to what he calls the lingering “psychological trauma of Covid and the pandemic in general.”

“A lot of our staff lost family members that died or were negatively impacted. A lot of people within the health system in general also perished due to the virus,” he said.

Healthcare workers came into work painfully aware of the irony of leaving behind their families, telling them to keep safe from the virus, while throwing themselves headfirst into the sort of harrowing, high-risk situations they’d caution against, said Pardo.

“It forced us to reevaluate our place in the healthcare field and ask whether we can continue to do it,” he said. 

Many simply could not. Healthcare workers have the propensity to push themselves to their mental and physical limits, noted employee health manager Lissa Nelson. The unrelenting pressure from the pandemic exploited this inclination to overstretch and overwork to a dangerous degree. And for too many staff members, their mental and physical wellness became collateral damage in the fight against the coronavirus, noted Nelson. 

“In the midst of the pandemic, a very young, talented physician (not associated with the hospital or the Northwell system) killed herself,” said Nelson — “a talented, wonderful person who was overwhelmed by the grief and stress and strain of her work.”

That moment forced administrators and leadership to step back and reevaluate to prevent a similar tragedy from happening on their turf.

“We know that healthcare workers do better when they don’t come in depleted, feel pulled apart from every angle, and have taken time to take care of themselves,” said Nelson. “And now I’m glad to see there is more of an emphasis than ever on providing a language for our staff to verbalize those needs.”

A new program called “stress first aid” involves checking regularly on healthcare workers’ emotional and mental states by offering them a way to explore and express their thoughts and feelings.

“We ask team members if they are in a ‘red zone,’ for example, where they feel tension and have a limited ability to function. Or are they in a green zone where everything is okay and you’re able to support other team members?” Nelson explained.

The program is still in its early stages, so it will take some time before staff members embrace those concepts into their own professional vocabulary. But Nelson hopes this move will help shift the hospital culture toward preventing staff members from suffering in silence under the weight of handling life-and-death situations. It is the first of several concerted steps in the works to address the scars left by the pandemic.

“Despite the overwhelming sickness that surrounded us during the pandemic, our team showed up every day,” said Nelson. “Now we want to make it easier for our healthcare workers to show up for themselves: to self-care, to express their grief, to heal.”

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