California health care workers confronting mental health crisis

Frontline workers' mental health struggles
Frontline workers' mental health struggles 02:42

Last Updated Feb 27, 2021 7:13 PM EST

California leads the nation in COVID deaths, now nearing 52,000. And while hospitalizations and infections are down, some health workers on the frontlines of the COVID crisis are now confronting a mental health crisis.

As vaccinations ramp up and COVID cases plummet, there's reason for optimism in America's COVID-19 disaster, but still, not all is well.

After being asked how she was, intensive care unit nurse Mariana Roman said, "That's a loaded question. I am exhausted."

Fighting COVID has taken a heavy toll on healthcare workers, especially those in the ICU. New studies show that nearly half may have mental health issues including anxiety, depression, insomnia and PTSD.

Rebecca Sandoval, the clinical nursing director for the ICU at the largest hospital in Los Angeles, said "This has been a really long road and we're not at the end. We're going to need to make sure that our staff is OK again."

Every surge brings increased workloads, personal risk of infection and the loss of many patients.

Roman said she's seen too much death. "Sometimes I went home and cried," she said. "It's hard to just go home and turn it off."

Health care workers' stress is compounded as they watch beds fill up with members of their community. In California, infection rates among Latinos are double those of White residents.

"So many have been ill and, in the hospital, its underserved population, really, just the access to care," Sandoval said. "I think all the comorbidities that as Hispanic people we have — the diabetes, hypertension, all those things."

Help has arrived, including at County USC Medical Center. The Biden administration has deployed troops to speed up shots and help in the intensive care unit.

U.S. Army Lieutenant General Laura Richardson said "Our providers were able to go into those hospitals and decompress those hospitals and wrap their arms around the staff there, just tremendous."

Respiratory therapist Derick Sherwood serves in the Air Force. He's been at this ICU for months.

"I really resort to FaceTime with my family. It's how I keep myself balanced," Sherwood said when asked how he is coping.

Checking in with loved ones, eating right and exercising helps avoid burnout, but there is the danger of PTSD — similar to being in combat.

Captain Hughes Choy, a military psychologist, said that "for our medical providers, you're seeing repeated loss of life each and every day. That's going to wear on you." 

But with fewer deaths and infections, things appear to be getting better.

"It's a new day. It'll be a better day. That's what I keep telling myself. Today is going to be a better day," Roman said.