Behind the Mask

Facing the chaos of the early pandemic– “The craziest experience of my lifetime…”

In early Spring 2020, the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic provided a US Primary Care Physician with an opportunity to support his community in a new way – He and his team decided to volunteer on the Covid hotline. This act not only reframed how he viewed the impact of the pandemic, but how he saw those in similar call center professions.

“It was the craziest experience that I had in my lifetime.”

From the moment they started, the volume of calls they received was overwhelming. The confusion and misinformation being spread left people scared and desperate to learn what they could from any source they felt was reliable.

In the beginning, he found that patients would call with multiple questions on testing, however, since tests were hard to come by early in the pandemic, he was directed to talk patients out of testing erroneously.

This was made worse by the never-ending stream of commentary coming from the news each day. When something would be mentioned on a press briefing, such as anti-HIV drugs being a potential way to combat the virus, patients would quickly start calling the hotline to ask about it.

“Mr. Trump said everyone will get testing at 4:00 pm on TV and 6:00 pm patients would start calling.”

Since the amount of approved information related to a lot of these claims was limited, he and his fellow volunteers weren’t equipped with the information patients were looking for. This led to a lot of anger being directed at him, which was a big shift in how he’s used to practicing.

“I have never practiced medicine trying to talk people out of what they are looking for. It really created a lot of negative impact on my mind. We are used to pleasing patients by ordering what they want.”

This then doubled in intensity when the COVID antibody test was developed. And even though these tests were only being provided in certain cities and on select patients, people were insistent on wanting to be tested, so this was yet another area where he had to push back against what patients were looking for.

“So now we have had to fight people about getting that COVID antibody test. Once again it was a big fight to pick with patients.”

Overall, this experience had a big impact on his mental health. Even without being in the center of hospitals or COVID hot zones, the strain of bearing the brunt of the frustration and fear of a public sector in panic had lasting effects. And his view of the call response sector as a whole? Completely changed.

“I cannot imagine… I appreciate people working 911 and suicide and crisis hotlines… My appreciation for those jobs are so much now than before.”

There has rightfully been a high level of focus on the risks and stress, which medical professionals working directly with COVID patients are put through. But less thought has been given to the impact of having to deal with aggressive and scared patients and family for months on end.

Though not on the “front lines”, workers who have taken on these tasks have still felt the consequences on their mental wellbeing. And in the US, the spread of misinformation has only exacerbated this, making the already hard lives of medical workers even more strained. Now, as the pandemic continues in 2021, the mental wellbeing of not just ourselves, but of others, is something that we should all truly look out for.