Public health officials say they’re worried the pandemic is causing burnout in their field

After over a year of managing the pandemic, local public health officials say they’re worried about burnout in their field

Lily Rosen Marvin, News Reporter

With an end date of the pandemic in sight later this year, Danielle Pettit-Majewski said she laughs when she thinks about how tired she felt a year ago.

As the Director for Public Health in Washington County, Pettit-Majewski has led the public health response to COVID-19 in her county. She said her department has helped with everything from vaccine distribution to food deliveries for quarantine households.

With the one-year anniversary of the pandemic behind her, however, Pettit-Majewski said it has been a difficult time for her department.

“There’s a ton of burnout. People are exhausted,” she said. “The burnout is a real thing and I worry about our public health workforce across the state and across the country.”

The burnout and fatigue in public health departments is being felt nationwide. As of December 2020, data tracked by Kaiser Health Network and the Associated Press found that at least 181 state and local public health officials across the U.S. had resigned, retired, or been fired since April 2020.

Community Health Division Manager of Johnson County Public Health Sam Jarvis has felt the weight of the pandemic as well and said it has been a long and stressful year for his public health department. Johnson County identified the first cases of COVID-19 in March last year. Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds called a press conference to tell the state of Iowa’s first three positive cases from passengers on an Egyptian cruise. Now, 377,926 positive tests statewide have been recorded by the Iowa Department of Public Health.

RELATED: University of Iowa Hospital and Clinics releases study on COVID-19 vaccine side effects

“Johnson County was the first county to identify cases of COVID-19 in the state. And so, we’ve had staff working here for the majority of that time,” Jarvis said. “Throughout the week — evenings, weekends, and holidays. It’s been stressful at times and it’s been frustrating.”

Jarvis added that he worries the stress of this pandemic will result in large-scale burnout within his field.

“Will we see a mass exodus in our profession? That might be a possibility. I’m sure health care is thinking the same thing. Especially with new grads. They probably think that this is how it is all the time,” he said. “We’re hoping to remind them that this is a pandemic that will end eventually, so hang in there. Reach out to peers to get help when you need it. It helps to talk about it.”

Both Jarvis and Pettit-Majewski said they encourage their fellow public health officials to ask for support and take care of themselves as the pandemic continues.

“It’s OK to not be OK,” Pettit-Majewski said. “We have been dealing with trauma for a year. Chronic stress for a year. It’s important to recognize that there are resources and get help. You go into public service to serve but it is exhausting to constantly be pouring from an empty cup and eventually, that’s unsustainable.”

Director of University Counseling Service Barry Schreier reiterated the importance of public health officials stepping back to allow space to recover.

“The pandemic didn’t allow a lot of health officials to [step back]. It simply became not an option. It was all hands-on deck and then some,” Schreier said. “But now that things are subsiding a little bit and hopefully will continue in that direction, stepping away becomes really important.”

As more Iowans receive their COVID-19 vaccines, both Jarvis and Pettit-Majewski said they have found ways to recharge and remain motivated.

“Things in recent memory that are good have been volunteering at vaccine clinics and seeing the look on people’s faces when they get the vaccine. The relief is phenomenal and it’s a good feeling,” Jarvis said. “We hope that this time doesn’t deter folks from public health. Despite it being one of the most stressful times for everyone and one of the toughest times for our profession, it’s been a phenomenal experience to be recognized for serving the community.”