Written by Evangeline Wilds

Health care workers have been put under immense pressure due to COVID-19, and through innovative programs, hospital administrators throughout Texas have provided support for their heroes on the frontlines.

From food shortages to social distancing, COVID-19 has impacted daily life for just about everyone throughout the United States, and those on the frontlines have been under particular pressure. During the height of the virus’ spread, some hospital employees began working increased hours. And due to a temporary ban on elective procedures, others worked far less hours. Finances became tighter for both hospitals and many of their staff members. Health care workers began to feel the emotional stress of caring for COVID-19 patients while worrying about contracting the virus and spreading it to others.

photo of frontline health care workers

These frontline employees needed support as they faced many new challenges, and hospital administrators throughout Texas rose to the challenge. By providing practical help - such as ready-made dinners, mental health resources and childcare - hospitals lifted up the health care heroes facing the pandemic’s unprecedented challenges.

Putting Food on the Table

During the height of the pandemic, it was hard for many medical workers to shop for groceries due to increased work hours and fear of spreading the virus. Harris Health System solved this problem by bringing the grocery store to frontline workers and taking the task of shopping off their plates.

Shweta Misra

The idea came when a vendor reached out to Shweta Misra, administrative director of food and nutrition services for Harris Health’s Lyndon B. Johnson Hospital in Houston. The vendor offered a way for hospital employees to pick up groceries before heading home from work: pre-packed produce boxes.

Taking the idea and running with it, Misra worked with her team to create produce bags containing fruits and vegetables, sold at-cost, that employees could pre-order and pick up at the end of their shifts.

“One of the retail managers put the produce in brown bags for us. He launched them at Ben Taub Hospital, and that became a success,” said Misra. The bags were a hit with employees. Soon after being tested at Ben Taub, the program kicked off at the other Harris Health branches.

Beginning with only produce, the bags evolved to include grab-and-go microwavable family meals as well as household items like paper towels and toilet paper.

As soon as the program launched at LBJ Hospital, it took off. “We advertised the program and got seven orders at our cafe the minute we opened,” said Misra. “For them not to worry about [grocery shopping], and be able to just pre-order meals - that was great.”

As grocery stores have resumed normal hours of operation, sales of the grocery bags have tapered off, but some employees are still placing orders due to the program’s accessibility and convenience. Through these grocery bags, the hospital has taken care of those who care for others on the frontlines.

Making Mental Health a Priority

In addition to physical risks introduced by working during the pandemic, health care workers are facing unique mental health challenges. While they work long hours to care for COVID-19 patients, often helping those who are very sick or dying, hospital employees are also worried for their own health and that of loved ones. In some cases, these worries are amplified due to shortages of personal protective equipment.

With this amount of uncertainty, it is no wonder that doctors, nurses and other hospital employees feel burnt out - plagued by anxiety, insomnia and trauma that those outside the health care profession can’t fully understand.

Shristi Shrestha

“Health care workers have to go home to their families, not knowing if they have been infected themselves,” said Dr. Shristi Shrestha, a psychiatric resident at Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center. “They have longer working hours, more intensive patients and a lot of anxiety.”

This is why Dr. Bobby Jain, professor of psychiatry at TTUHSC, created a free, virtual support group for frontline workers. To follow social distancing protocols, the group met daily over Zoom™.

Bobby Jain

“Our goal was to gather a small number of people and just talk about what’s going on in their lives, how they’re dealing with stress, and what’s working for them,” said Dr. Jain. “They can get ideas from others about how to cope. It builds a lot of resilience.”

The group was small, with a few regular participants and others who would come and go. In some cases, Dr. Jain recognized signs of intense fatigue in his group members, but still felt their hesitancy to reach out for help. He feels this is due to a stigma in the health care field surrounding vulnerability and seeking support.

“It’s a culture that affects all physicians,” said Dr. Jain. “Unless you’re so sick you can’t get out of bed, you’re expected to show up to work and do your job, because your patients need you. But this leads to a lot of burnout issues. Then people come to our doors when they’re completely broken down, when these things could have been fixed much earlier.”

Because of the burnout he has seen in health care workers, both during the pandemic and before, Dr. Jain is a strong advocate for seeking mental health care, especially through group sessions.

“The group is a very powerful tool,” said Dr. Jain. “When you go to a doctor, the doctor can tell you what to do, but it may not have as much of an impact as being in a group with three or four colleagues in the same situation. They can tell you what has worked for them, and you’ll be more likely to take it to heart. When advice comes from someone in a similar situation, that’s very important.”

Taking Care of Families

COVID-19 has also put many hospital employees with children in challenging situations. While these parents were working longer hours and taking new assignments in order to fill staffing needs, schools and daycares were closing and many children had nowhere to go during the workday.

A survey of employees at Lubbock’s University Medical Center Health System revealed that over 350 children needed a place to go during the day so that parents could continue seeing patients at the hospital. Additionally, some staff members needed to make up hours lost when elective procedures were cancelled.

To solve this problem, UMC Health System partnered with the Lubbock Independent School District to provide childcare for the kids of hospital employees. During the twelve-week program, the children came to Miller Elementary School during the day to learn and play in a safe place, and staff needing work hours were reassigned to the program to care for the kids. Tight safety protocols - such as masks, temperature checks and regular hand washing - were followed to ensure the program stayed virus-free.

Aaron Davis

“We allowed 50 staff members, including nurses, physical therapists and support staff, to go out there and take care of kiddos - and in some cases, to take care of their own kids. So it was childcare for them, as well as hours for which they could receive payment,” said Aaron Davis, chief experience officer for UMC Health System. “We also had staff deployed throughout the facility to do temperature screenings. We didn’t have any major issues, and no COVID-19 breakouts.”

Not only did the staff lead educational lessons, they also provided fun activities for the kids that would act as stress relief during a difficult time.

“We provided art class, dance class and music,” said Davis. “The very last couple days we had a huge water day. We had pet therapists come in with animals to see the kids. So it was a great, great program that we ran.”

UMC Health System also introduced many other initiatives to support staff during the pandemic, including free temporary housing for staff members concerned about infecting family members; free e-therapy services for health care workers; and “Hero Breaks” for frontline workers: perks such as t-shirts, free lunches and even giant cookies that conveyed gratitude for the staff’s hard work.

“It’s been an intentional effort to give back to our employees,” said Davis. “We tell them, ‘We’re going to honor you, take a break on us. We appreciate what you’re doing and your efforts to take care of our community.’”