Coronavirus: Doctors, nurses and health workers ‘burning out’, warns WHO

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Doctors and nurses dealing with COVID-19 patients are at risk of burnout, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), which has warned that the global health workforce is as big a concern in fighting the virus now as a lack of intensive care units, ventilators and personal protective equipment was in March.

“Our health workforce is exhausted, people are burning out,” Hans Kluge, WHO regional director for Europe, told ministers of health at an emergency meeting on 29 October.

“We have no COVID-19 response if we do not care for our health-care and essential workers: their needs and well-being must be prioritised.”

It comes amid reports in Belgium that nurses working in one of the country’s coronavirus hotspots were being asked to continue working even after they test positive for COVID-19.

Alexander Ghuysen, head of the emergency department at the hospital, told the decision had been a difficult: “It’s getting worse and worse, we are reaching a critical point,” he said.

Extra mile

Kluge warned that politicians and governments would need to “go the extra mile” in protecting health workers dealing with the pandemic, which could include measures such as “compensating unused leave or allowing them to carry this leave to the next calendar year, and by providing additional support services to them and their families, including psychosocial support or child care”.

Europe reported its highest rate of COVID-19 infections since the beginning of pandemic this week, with over 1.5 million cases reported over the last seven days. On 29 October, Europe passed the 10 million case milestone, WHO said.

The virus is also killing more people, it said, with a 32% increase in deaths across Europe. It is also hitting older and at-risk groups, such as those with underlying conditions.

Lockdowns, such as those imposed by France and Germany in recent days, were critical in reducing pressure on the health system in the worst-hit countries. But at the same , lockdowns led to more domestic violence, mental health concerns and deaths from other chronic conditions.

The WHO said that the wearing of masks could save 266,000 lives across the WHO’s 53 member states and that given that children and adolescents were not primary drivers of transmission, school closures are not needed.