Dr. Nancy Messonnier, former director of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, answers questions about the pandemic. The Q&A was originally published by Participant.

Dr. Nancy Messonnier, who currently serves as the executive director for Pandemic Prevention and Health Systems at the Skoll Foundation, will take the stage at RISE National 2022, on Wednesday, March 9, 2022, the second day of the main conference. She will discuss the current health care landscape, immunization hesitancy, and the future of public health.

In this column originally published by Participant, Dr. Messonnier, answers questions about the pandemic’s effects on the health care system and workers.

How long will the pandemic last? Are you hopeful for the future?

It’s a mistake to try to predict the trajectory of this pandemic. Almost universally, the predictions made by many scientists have been incorrect. It’s also a mistake to think that one day it will all just be over. Omicron, Delta, and other variants are cases in point and a reality that we must be prepared to address. We need to learn to live with this virus and accept the fact that the risk will not go down to zero—much like with many other common respiratory viruses. However, I do believe that we can manage to live alongside it and find ways to modify our behaviors, when necessary, to keep the risk low.

As frustrating and depressing as this pandemic has been, I think we are learning from it and that it will have lasting positive impacts on certain aspects of our lives. I hope that once the dust settles a bit, we will be able to think objectively about how to leverage advances in science and biotechnology and how we can better prepare for future events, including preparing and equipping health care and public health workforces. I hope that we will be able to better understand how interconnected the entire world and we all are and the deep need for basic scientific literacy.

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What kind of impact has the pandemic had on frontline health care workers?

Frontline health care workers have been in the trenches of this pandemic from the beginning. In the early days of the pandemic, they were treating the sickest patients without being sure of their own safety and, sometimes, without having the advantage of personal protective equipment. It is a tremendous responsibility and so difficult to watch patients you’re responsible for suffer and sometimes die.

Health care workers have carried a huge weight and burden that they just can’t put down—and they have been doing it for almost two years. To make matters worse, they carry that burden with them when they come home, concerned about transmitting the virus to their families and friends. In recent months in the U.S., the availability of vaccines has made the situation better for many health care workers because they are better protected and the number of new cases have trended downward nationally. But, in some parts of the country, case rates are rising quickly, and health care workers are frustrated because most of the hospitalized patients are unvaccinated.

After nearly two years of fighting a pandemic, the health care work force is decimated, and hospitals are short-staffed. I’ve talked to friends who practice clinical medicine who agonize over the fact that they know that they are not able to provide optimal patient care. Many colleagues also talk about how hard it is to have to dig deep to find compassion for patients who could have prevented their illness had they gotten vaccinated and followed masking and social distancing guidelines. The situation is even worse in many countries around the world that don’t have access to vaccines, protective equipment, supplies, and healthcare staff and infrastructure. Community health workers play an even more critical role in these contexts, in many cases despite lacking the resources and systems needed to fight a pandemic.

RISE National 2022

What is one thing about mental health and health care workers that you wish more people knew?

It might seem simplistic to say this, but health care workers are human and suffer the same stresses and mental health challenges, like depression and anxiety, as we all do. The important difference that people need to understand is that the stresses that health care workers experience are magnified by their responsibilities for the lives of others. Unfortunately, the health care sector does not have comprehensive systems in place to support health care workers’ mental health. To make matters worse, health care workers frequently do not feel they can report their mental health challenges for fear of impacting their careers and peers’ perceptions of them. Health care workers choose to go into health care because they want to care for others and, generally, they are incredibly resilient, but they are not superhuman. The impact of the pandemic on some health care workers has been unbearably devastating.

What are some of the unforeseen consequences the pandemic has had on the health care sector?

The pandemic has had a tremendous impact on all aspects of the health care sector. Too many providers are walking away or choosing to take jobs that are less stressful, less busy, less consuming. Health care workers closer to retirement are thinking of retiring early. We will suffer immeasurably as a society if we lose their caring capacity and many years of experience. This is even more pronounced in the Global South where health care workers have less access to personal protective equipment and vaccines and where there are fewer of them caring for growing numbers of patients.

What are your hopes for the future of our health care system?

I hope we will take this opportunity to think more systematically about our health care system, both in the U.S. and globally, and enact reforms that improve resilience in the system and treat health care workers as the life-saving heroes that they are. This pandemic should also remind us how important the bonds are between a patient and their primary care providers, who are trusted by their patients to help them make health care decisions like getting vaccinated. The U.S. health care system should do more to ensure that primary care providers are well-equipped and -treated and adequately compensated--and that primary health care is available to everyone.

What can we do as individuals to support our frontline health care workers moving forward?

I hope that we can also remember to be patient and compassionate with our health care workers. This is true with health care workers who care for us as patients but also health care workers who are our friends and neighbors. They have been traumatized disproportionately by this pandemic compared to other sectors of society. More generally, the most important thing we can do is to prevent people from getting COVID so that we decrease the burden on health care workers and the sector at large. That is yet another reason everyone should be getting fully vaccinated and taking appropriate precautions to decrease the spread of COVID.

RISE National 2022 will take place March 7-9 at the Gaylord Opryland in Nashville, Tenn. Proof of COVID-19 vaccination is required to attend. Click here for the roster of speakers, agenda, registration information, and our complete health and safety protocols.