Every morning when I leave home, I kiss my husband goodbye, terrified that today may be the day I get ill, am admitted to the hospital, and will never see him again. I worry that he will be stuck with copays and premiums for my medical care, my student loans from medical school, and an apartment he won’t be able to pay for. I am a frontline physician caring for COVID-19 infected patients in New York City, constantly surrounded by the fear of illness, disability, and death. The only way to mitigate my fears and those of many other frontline providers is through government-sponsored and guaranteed supplemental health, disability, and life insurance for all essential workers.
Fear is a natural human emotion, whether justified or not. Our fear as essential workers is not out of a lack of knowledge, but because of it. We have seen patients in their 20s and 30s die of COVID-19. We have seen our coworkers and colleagues across New York City get sick, need intubation, and still pass away. How is it possible for anyone in our shoes to not be scared?
Each of us handles fear in different ways. In the public hospital where I work, I find myself holding my breath when riding the elevator with coworkers — whether it is merely going up two floors or 16. I pay utmost attention to putting on and taking off my PPE when seeing patients, constantly nervous that I’ll make a mistake and expose myself to the virus. Before leaving the hospital, I strip off all the contaminated clothes and change into a new set of scrubs, hopeful that this decreases any chance of bringing the virus into my home.
Fellow colleagues on the front lines have similar fears and have tailored their own arrangements. Some are staying in hotel rooms or with friends to decrease their chances of getting loved ones sick. Many have ensured they have their wills and end-of-life plans are up-to-date. We are acutely aware of our risks, all the time. They haunt us. And not just us doctors and nurses — but all of us essential workers, including our tireless cafeteria staff, contractors and custodians, bus drivers and food delivery persons to name a few.
In the current climate, the risk of contracting COVID-19 is disproportionately skewed towards essential workers who, by the very nature of our jobs, must continuously put ourselves at risk for the benefit of others. For our employers who do want to support essential workers, many barriers exist, including significant financial losses, lack of bandwidth to focus on employee satisfaction, and scarcity of interest from insurance companies to provide expanded coverage to workers at highest risk of contracting COVID-19.
The only way to value and protect essential workers is through government-sponsored insurance. The government must pay our health care bills related to COVID-19 if we are underinsured or uninsured while bearing the burden of risk for those who remain socially isolated. Our jobs and livelihoods must be protected — if essential workers become disabled during the pandemic, we must be guaranteed basic financial protections for our service to this country.
At 7 p.m. every evening, we cheer for our essential workers in a routine that brings tears to my eyes. I am proud to fight this pandemic, to be a doctor, and to be a New Yorker. So please value me, literally. Provide government sponsored supplemental health, disability, and life insurance for all COVID-19 essential workers.
Illustration by Jennifer Bogartz