After almost two and a half years of working through a global pandemic—one that is still prevalent—health workers in Long Beach and across the U.S. are now facing yet another disease spreading through their communities: monkeypox.
Officials in the local health system, however, say they are ready to take on the one-two punch.
“I don’t want to underplay burnout,” Dr. Graham Tse, physician-in-charge of COVID at Long Beach Memorial, said. “Everyone’s been affected, but we support each other as a team.”
The coronavirus pandemic has taken its toll on Long Beach, with 1,308 related deaths and over 145,000 cases reported as of Aug. 5 since its onset. The disease has come in waves, with the worst of it striking in the winter of 2020-21.
At its peak, the pandemic threatened to overwhelm area hospitals, which were nearing capacity and oftentimes short-staffed, in part due to a years-long nursing shortage. Since then, the severity of the coronavirus has ebbed and flowed—but never let up entirely to allow health workers to breathe.
“The demands on our people and their selfless dedication to serve are unmatched,” Carolyn Caldwell, president of St. Mary Medical Center, said in an email.
Now, after a spike in COVID cases, hospitalizations and deaths that is just beginning to subside, monkeypox is spreading quickly, with state, county and local officials all declaring a state of emergency last week. Since the first Long Beach case was reported on July 16, the figure grew to 25 as of Aug. 5—an average of more than one new case per day.
“There’s no panic, there’s awareness,” Tse said about the atmosphere at the hospital. “We’re working closely with the public health department, internally our epidemiology and infection prevention specialists are educating our providers and our staff, and we’re being cautious.”
There is some overlap in symptoms for COVID-19 and monkeypox, Tse said, so staff must take extra precautions until it is determined which, if either, of the diseases they are infected with. The guiding principles of the hospital are to ensure the safety of patients, visitors and staff, he added, so if there are concerns, patients are isolated until specialists make a determination.
The health care industry has become accustomed to dealing with health emergencies since early 2020, Caldwell said. Tse echoed Caldwell’s sentiment, adding that one silver lining of the coronavirus pandemic is that communication among hospitals and various local, state and federal health agencies has improved greatly.
“There’s much more collaboration to make sure everyone’s on the same page,” Tse said.
Health workers have more advantages in combating monkeypox, Tse noted. First and foremost, it is not a new disease, but one that is well-known to the medical community, unlike the novel coronavirus.
When it first emerged, scientists and doctors did not even know how COVID-19 was spread. This is not the case with monkeypox, which spreads through close, personal, often skin-to-skin contact, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Additionally, a vaccine already exists for monkeypox. Tse urges everyone to get vaccinated against COVID-19 and for everyone in eligible, vulnerable groups to get inoculated against monkeypox after consulting a doctor.
Early in the coronavirus pandemic, there were shortages of tests as well as protective equipment for health workers—two issues that no longer exist, Tse said. And when the coronavirus vaccine was rolled out, there was limited quantity—another nonissue today.
The monkeypox vaccine, however, is somewhat limited due to U.S. stockpiles expiring. But production is well underway, and doses are being shipped nationwide regularly.
One area of concern, however, is that the collective public health consciousness has deteriorated further throughout the course of the coronavirus pandemic, Tse said. This shift away from worrying about general public health to only one’s individual health is due in large part to the rampant spread of misinformation, he said.
Prior to the pandemic, it was common for people to go to work, school and other public areas despite having a cold or even the flu. This practice, however—the culture of being present and productive no matter what—is unsafe and people should stay home if they are feeling ill, Tse said.
“People are … tired of masking, they’re tired of social distancing, they’re tired of not living like they did before,” Tse said. “But we have to think of other human beings and take their safety and concerns into account.”
“People have to regain compassion, kindness and empathy,” Tse added.
While the risk of being overwhelmed remains low despite two public health crises, Tse said the hospital will continue to offer staff resources—counseling, apps, and more—to combat the mental and physical impacts of working through this historic moment in time.
“I have often reflected [over] the last month: What is the new normal here?,” Tse said. “There is no new normal; it changes everyday.”