CONCORD — Over the last year, Marsha Davidson has faced countless heart-rending experiences.
Certain scenes stick in her head from her time as a psychiatric emergency room nurse at Dartmouth-Hitchcock. Once, she watched a woman emerge from a coronavirus fog, confused where she was and desperately looking for her husband who wasn’t allowed in due to COVID restrictions. Davidson tried to console her but found it hard to be a source of comfort wearing a respirator, a mask, goggles and face shield.
“It creates a heavy weight to bear,” she said. “I could share for a long time all these stories from patients and their families and things we’ve seen over the last year. I don’t think a shift goes by that I don’t hear a colleague share some real concerns and burdens of their emotional burnout and fatigue of what they’re dealing with.”
Frontline workers across the state are experiencing similar stressors, advocates said at a roundtable with U.S. Sen. Maggie Hassan. As the pandemic wears on, first responders are facing a growing emotional toll and burnout.
Mark Newport, the chief of police at the Portsmouth Police Department, said many officers at first struggled with fear of the unknown— while most people were able to hide from the virus in their homes, officers were still on the streets, regularly coming in contact with others. As officers on his force began to fall ill with COVID-19, the fear became more tangible.
Newport said one of the greatest tools in recovering from the stressors like these is being able to take a break. He said the pandemic has all but ended vacation time for his officers.
“We have to come to work every single day without breaking,” he said. “We haven’t had the luxury in a year of having that time off.”
David Goldstein, the chief of police at the Franklin Police Department, said one of the primary concerns he hears from officers is bringing COVID-19 home to their family.
“What’s very important is that the recognition of these issues not disappear,” he said.
The N.H Department of Health has attempted to address this burnout and stress by rolling out a mental health hotline exclusively for frontline workers. Jenn Schirmer, the disaster behavioral health coordinator for the Department of Health and Human Services, hopes those in distress will be able to use the hotline to develop a plan for managing some of the most stressful parts of their job.
“It is just that sense of kind of like constant repeated exposure and worry and concern and fear that it just doesn’t end,” Schirmer said.
Dan Goonan, the fire chief at the Manchester Fire Department, said it’s not just the frontline workers who are impacted by the pandemic. Families of frontline workers bear some of the burden as well.
“We’re worried about bringing it home; we have family members that may be laid off; we have kids out of school. It’s just so much stuff going on, and it adds up,” he said. “You can see it on their faces that they’re just drained.”