'A perfect storm of trauma:' Expert says COVID-19 could have lasting impact on healthcare workers

MILWAUKEE -- The COVID-19 pandemic is having an impact on all of us, and medical professionals who are in the midst of it are no exception. Local experts say it's likely that many frontline workers are already experiencing trauma, and could continue to feel its effects.

Day after day, doctors, nurses and other frontline workers answer the call -- fighting for patients who have tested positive for COVID-19.


Debbie Minksy-Kelly

"I actually think this is really a perfect storm of trauma issues facing healthcare providers," said Debbie Minsky-Kelly, a social work professor at Carthage College.  "Typically when professionals are working in situations of trauma, they aren't necessarily also afraid for their own safety."

Minsky-Kelly teaches as a course on trauma and says this situation is unlike any other. The secondary trauma from treating coronavirus patients is now being coupled with a fear of contracting the virus -- resulting in first-hand trauma.

"Your activated stress response system is related to walking into rooms with a highly contagious disease," said Minsky-Kelly. "Seeing firsthand the implications of catching this illness, and knowing they are potentially being exposed."


She said those in the medical field are coping with people dying in larger numbers than they are used to, and treating a higher number of cases at once; however, many are also grappling with shortages of personal protective equipment (PPE), and concerns about bringing the infection home to their loved ones.

"They may be experiencing a lot of activation, feelings of nervousness, feelings of being unable to sit still," Minksy-Kelly said. "When our bodies have been activated for a very long time, and we have not successfully escaped the stressor, then the next biological response comes as the freeze response, a shutting down response, that is actually the most damaging."

Gov. Tony Evers said he is prepared to help those who will need it.

Gov. Tony Evers

"The stress and the trauma that occurs plays out of a period of months and years," said Gov. Evers. "We have to be prepared for a longer haul on this."

Minsky-Kelly said there are coping mechanisms that can be implemented now, such as practicing yoga or meditation. Still, she said most of the trauma recovery and healing will start when the pandemic comes to an end.