Industry Voices—This holiday season, give thanks to America's healthcare heroes by wearing a mask, social distancing

The last nine months have been some of the most challenging in history for our nation’s healthcare system.

Across the country, front line healthcare workers such as nurses and doctors in hospitals and health systems stood up and battled against a formidable enemy, COVID-19. A better understanding of the virus, coupled with warm weather in the summer months, seemed to bring us some reprieve. More recent news of an effective COVID-19 vaccine (or two) may finally show a light at the end of the tunnel.

But, as we enter the winter months and colder weather, we are seeing a complete reversal of the progress we have made. Over the past two weeks, our average rate of daily COVID-19 cases has increased by 81%—a devastating trend in a country that already has the highest cases and death toll in the world. It is true that we have more information, more ventilators, additional therapeutics and a better understanding of how the virus spreads than we did when the nation first encountered COVID-19 in March.

However, despite the significant progress we have made in learning how to prepare for, and respond to, a surge among our hospitals and health systems, there is one crucial component that can’t be mass-produced or stockpiled: our people.

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All across America, healthcare workers have tirelessly delivered care at great sacrifice to themselves and their families. They are also tired and burnt out. There’s no doubt the pandemic is taking a physical and emotional toll on our nation—not just in the victims it claims, but in the healthcare workers who show up every day to fight. As we enter this next wave, that toll is represented in recruiting efforts and staffing pools nationwide.

  • In the spring, we saw an abundance of “travel” nurses who could move from place-to-place and be quickly deployed as reinforcements when needed. Today, these nurses are extremely scarce and hospitals are struggling to bring them in.
  • Unexpected callouts continue to rise as nurses and others find themselves feeling burnt out, needing to take time to care for children who are out of school or quarantining after experiencing COVID-19 related symptoms.

Many hospitals and health systems are—once again—already at, or near, capacity with no option to move patients or recruit more staff. Our hospitals are working hard to meet these challenges with help from our public health agencies and government. As the third wave of COVID-19 takes hold across America, the public also has an important job to do to help the healthcare heroes who are working on the front lines every day.

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The nation’s current course jeopardizes our ability to fight the COVID-19 pandemic. The level of stress that the healthcare system is under requires immediate public action to protect it and our caregivers. Now more than ever, wearing a mask, washing hands and staying at least 6 feet apart are critical steps everyone can take to help. Reconsidering holiday travel plans, and avoiding large holiday gatherings, will help America’s caregivers weather the storm this winter and reduce the risks that family and friends may infect each other.

We all want to be with our family and friends this holiday season. Pandemic fatigue is real and the impact of months of social distancing is hard for many people.

But this year, we need to show our appreciation to our healthcare heroes and the love we have for our family and friends by wearing a mask and avoiding large family gatherings. This is hard work. But making these sacrifices now will help us get this virus under control so that holidays next year, when the vaccine allows us to get finally resume normal activities, can be celebrated with families and friends.

Robyn Begley is the chief nursing officer for the American Hospital Association.