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'Health care heroes': Medical workers 2020's Residents of the Year for facing complex precautions, burnout, infection risk, vitriol from conspiracy crowd

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Long hours. Extra shifts. Isolation from friends, family and sometimes even coworkers.

The reality of the COVID-19 pandemic forced most industries and individuals to shift as the world was plunged into uncertainty, fear and sometimes denial. But even when other industries were forced to move remote or shut down, health care workers pushed on — putting their own physical and mental health on the line.

Health care workers in intensive care units and emergency rooms have spoken about the sudden increase in workload for months, but the same has been seen throughout every department at Logan Regional Hospital.

And it extends beyond doctors and nurses to nursing assistants and other workers, as noted by Cache County resident Mike Neilson.

“I live in Smithfield and have noticed all those that work so diligently at the North Intermountain Clinic in Hyde Park providing the tests in the parking lot,” he wrote to The Herald Journal. “I have watched those in Hyde Park perform their duties through all the springtime rains, summer heat and now the bitter cold.”

For their tireless efforts in providing aid to the community, The Herald Journal has selected health care workers as the Residents of the Year for 2020.

Learning curve

Allan Anderson, 60, a surgeon at Logan Regional Hospital for 16 years, had just returned from a vacation in March when broad shutdowns were utilized to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus.

“I came back Sunday,” he said. “On Sunday night, we were canceling elective surgical cases for the week.”

The operating room went from bustling to emergency surgeries only overnight.

“Things just kind of came to a halt,” Anderson said, “and it was kind of the rapidity with which it occurred that was somewhat overwhelming.”

It was a similar shift for Jeff Wallis, the clinical education manager at the hospital.

“It's been a little bit challenging,” said the 42-year-old. “A lot of our meetings have gone virtual so that we aren’t in close contact with each other, and that's been a challenge to get that platform up and running. But nurses are highly resilient and they adapt well and through changes, they have been able to continue their work, regardless of the challenges.”

Chantele Cheney, 45, is a CAT scan technician at Logan Regional. She said her department was similarly slow at the start of the pandemic, but now, the majority of patients she sees have or have had COVID-19.

“One thing that they have found with COVID is that you do have a higher risk for blood clots in your lungs,” she said. “With CAT scans, we do an angio of the lungs to check the pulmonary artery for clots.”

It’s the same for radiology, according to Alyssa Latimer, who sees COVID-19 or suspected COVID-19 cases on a daily basis, and it’s “tiring” and “intense.”

“But the nice thing about our shifts is we work 12-hour shifts, so we do have some time away from work during the week,” said the 31-year-old. “I am able to decompress and be home. … It's kind of like, you come to work, get it done, and then leave and you can relax at home.”

Staffing has also been a concern. Most hospitals staff to 60-80% capacity, but with COVID-19, ICU capacity has been close to or above 97% throughout the state.

It is below 85% for “the first time in weeks,” according to Intermountain Healthcare’s infectious diseases physician, Eddie Stenehjem, in a press conference on Wednesday.

“It’s given our health care workers a chance to breathe,” he said at the briefing.

Having health care workers named the Residents of the Year is a nice recognition, according to Cheney, especially as many of them go to work with the same fears and uncertainty as everyone else.

“I'm just glad that we're here and we're able to help people through this,” she said, “We've had the training to kind of deal with this kind of thing, but I know sometimes the public is very, very scary because they just really don't know what to expect."

Restrictions on visitation in hospitals meant that health care workers were often the only human contact for patients who were scared and suffering. And even when the virus wasn't actively spreading in long-term care facilities, residents are at such high risk of developing serious COVID-19 complications that visits from family members are restricted and workers are once again the only others residents see in-person.

Even when faced with patients who view the current situation with skepticism, sometimes calling the pandemic “scam-” or “plan-demic” or a hoax, health care workers have worked “non-stop throughout the pandemic,” as noted by another Herald Journal reader.

“They've also had to bear a giant emotional toll from being the ones to see the death and destruction of COVID-19 firsthand,” the reader commented on a Herald Journal request for nominations. “And through it all they have also had to battle lack of funding and resources, misinformation, and those who, even with their dying breath, think COVID is a hoax.”

Wallis said that’s all just part of the job.

“We educate them as to what's going on, and we take care of them, regardless of whether they think it's an issue or not,” Wallis said. “We try our best to treat everyone the same and to take care of everyone, the best way that we know how and try to educate them on how they can stay safe and live healthy lives. And hopefully that education has had an impact on the community.”

It could be made harder when seeing others in the community not take guidelines seriously, such as attending gatherings or ignoring other virus-mitigation efforts.

“It's been hard because my kids miss visiting with their grandparents,” Cheney said. “And we've just tried to keep them away from them, where they're going to school and stuff now, and I feel like that's kind of a bigger issue where you get multiple people gathering.”

Even though measures like masks and added hygiene have been proven to slow the spread of the virus, Cheney said “it's still pretty scary,” especially when her children have asthma and her mother is immunocompromised.

The end of 'a hard year'

The vaccinations rolling out throughout the state and the country have been hailed as “a light at the end of the tunnel,” though many acknowledge it’s still a long tunnel ahead until enough people have been inoculated to reach herd immunity.

Though she agrees workers on the floor deserve the term “health care heroes,” Latimer said the phrase never fully resonated with her.

“I don't feel like I am,” she said. “I'm just doing my job. You know, this is what we signed up for when we got into health care.”

Anderson said the same thing and added “most of us do this for the greater-good type of scenario, but it’s nice to be recognized — especially since the virus dominated the entire world’s news.”

Like most health care workers, Anderson was relieved to have received the first round of vaccinations against the virus last week.

“2020 is coming to the end, and yes, it was a hard year, but I also think it was the year that everyone kind of banded together, and there was a lot of unity which I think helps and bolsters people,” Latimer said. “I hope we just carry that unity into 2021, and we're still able to be human and still have compassion for everyone.”

In Wednesday’s briefing, Stenehjem said due to the high percentage of positivity in the state, large gatherings should still be avoided at this time or else chances of spreading the virus are high.