Healthcare Workers Go From Being Lauded To Being Subjected To Workplace Violence And Harassment

September 3, 2021

By a Biometrica staffer

Healthcare workers in the U. S., hailed as heroes at the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, have become — over the last several months — the targets of a disgruntled public. The hostility against workers administering Covid-19 vaccines has reached such a fever pitch that government officials are having to plead with the public to treat them in a civil manner.

Georgia Department of Public Health Commissioner Dr. Kathleen Toomey joined Gov. Brian Kemp to urge residents to stop harassing, bullying, and threatening healthcare workers, Becker’s Hospital Review reported this week. 

“I’ve become aware that many of our line workers who are doing these vaccinations are receiving threats or receiving hostile emails, harassing emails,” Dr. Toomey was quoted as saying. “That’s something that you know has happened to me early on. Maybe it comes with the territory or to someone in my position. But it shouldn’t be happening to those nurses who are working in the field who are trying to keep this state safe.”

At least one mobile vaccination center in the state of Georgia has had to be closed after staff received threats and after a group of organized individuals showed up at the venue, harassing workers. The exact venue of the North Georgia center was not revealed as it was feared that doing so could put staff in further danger.

Moreover, the matter is not specific only to Georgia. Nearly a quarter of 26,000 healthcare workers surveyed in March and April 2020 felt bullied, the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC) revealed.

In mid-August the Methodist Healthcare System in San Antonio reported that its staff had been threatened with guns and knives when the center was strained by Covid-19 admissions. As a result of the threats, security was beefed up with the help of the San Antonio Police Department.

“Now, we go in somewhat slumped, somewhat tired,” Jane McCurley, chief nurse executive for Methodist Healthcare System told KENS5. “I felt like I was walking in a warzone among the walking wounded. I have been through the riots in the ’80s, the floods, the fires, the hurricanes. I have been through it all. I have evacuated hospitals throughout my career. I have never seen what we are seeing today. ”

“People are angry, and they’re frustrated,” she added. “When our staff experiences cursing, screaming physical abuse, ‘I am going to get my gun,’ (have) a knife pulled on them—it is terrifying.”

Curley attributed some of the frustration to mandatory mask regulations, restricted visitation hours, and longer wait times.

In Dallas, too, incidents of this nature were reported. Karen Garvey, vice president of patient safety and clinical risk management at Parkland Health & Hospital System in Dallas, said, according to the Texas Tribune, that this included “people being punched in the chest, having urine thrown on them and inappropriate sexual innuendos or behaviors in front of staff members. The verbal abuse, the name-calling, racial slurs […] we’ve had broken bones, broken noses.”

With hospitals already reporting historic nursing shortages as the Covid-19 pandemic drags on, these attacks have made the work of medical staff that much more dangerous and stressful.

“Tempers are high,” said Carrie Kroll, director of advocacy for the Texas Hospital Association, “to the point where some systems are putting a security guard at check-in because family members are getting so abusive over the masking and some of the other screening things they need to do.”

Those working in the healthcare industry were four times more likely to face workplace violence as those in other fields, a study by the New England Journal of Medicine found. Hospitals have taken to installing panic buttons on staff identity badges to allow security to respond quickly in more dangerous incidents. 

In Tennessee, a law came into force in July stipulating that if a person knowingly engages physical contact with a nurse, they can be charged with a Class A misdemeanor, face a mandatory fine of $5,000, and face a minimum sentence of 30 days in jail.

In addition, if a person commits aggravated assault — including attempting to cause serious bodily harm or brandishing a weapon — they could face a Class C felony charge, a mandatory fine of $15,000, and a minimum sentence of 90 days in jail.

The American Journal of Managed Care called for increased protections for healthcare employees as early as May 2019. While 75% of nearly 25,000 workplace assaults occur annually in healthcare settings, only 30% of nurses and 26% of emergency department physicians have reported incidents of violence, a study showed

While doctors also faced hostility, it was nurses who bore the brunt of the ire, as they spent more time with patients. Among emergency doctors, 47% reported having been physically assaulted on the job, while that number rose to 70% for emergency nurses, WebMD reported.