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Public Health Employees Experience Burn Out From A Year Of The Pandemic

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Before the pandemic hit, not many people knew each county had a public health officer or what they did exactly. Natrona County Public Health Officer Dr. Mark Dowell has been in that position since the late 1990s."I would oversee sexually transmitted disease clinics. I would do immigration physicals. We would look at reproductive planning, these kinds of things," Dowel described.

But all of that changed when the pandemic hit. Public health employees all of the sudden were on the front line of the fight.

"It was endless phone calls, endless hours, endless types of stress, and huge policy making decisions right on the fly," said Dowell. "And having to do all the meetings with public officials, trying to convince people that the public health policies were the way to go for our county, and having to be in the media a lot, and having my life threatened."

Now, local public health employees had to tell people what not to do in order to protect their health and those around them. The pandemic brought the public health industry into the limelight. Public health officials and employees have been politicized, emotionally abused and threatened by the public. For an industry that is not used to this, employees are getting burned out.

Park County Public Health Nurse Manager Bill Crampton said no one liked anything they had to say, but it came in a spectrum

"That spectrum involves a percentage of folks who feel there are rules, and they need to be followed implicitly without question, and everybody needs to do everything they're told," said Crampton. "Then [at] the [other] end [of the] spectrum are people that were just, still are, rampant, 'This is against my constitutional rights. You can't make us do these things.' A very self centered approach to the whole event. And trying to address all of those wants was very challenging."

Crampton said while making these decisions and educating people is a part of his job, receiving this level of abuse is not.

"They [the public] made a point of sending very negative emails and making negative phone calls. And I got to the point where I wouldn't return voice messages. I listened to the message and that would be the end of it," recalled Crampton. "I tried to be accessible. But there got to be a point where, for my own sanity, I just couldn't do it anymore. I just could not talk to some of these people, because they were out of control. And I mean, a lot of us felt threatened."

Crampton and Dowell are holding on but county health officers in Wyoming have been kicked out or resigned, unable to handle the stress.

For the president of the Wyoming Psychological Association Mark Holland, what public health employees are experiencing is similar to the iconic image of the former President. George W. Bush being told about the first World Trade Center building being struck on 9/11.

"You can read it on his face: he just went from a peacetime president, working on whatever was a priority that morning, to he's at war. And that emotional reaction is not unlike a similar emotional reaction that you've seen with our public health officials," said Holland.

Holland said public health employees are trying to focus on the facts, but fear and uncertainty have been driving the public's response and actions for more than a year.

He said once the vaccines came out, it was a little easier for public health officials because, now, they had a solution. But until then, and even still, burn out is prevalent amongst these workers.

"It's hard on our stomachs; we develop ulcers. It's hard on our brain. It's hard on our bodies," said Holland. "It's hard on our mental health because we're no longer balanced in our thinking."

Holland said relaxation is key. Natrona County Public Health officer Mark Dowell agreed.

"Thank God for exercise. Thank God for watching sports once in a while, and jazz music, and just finding places to go in my brain to decompress."

But it is still hard.

"Some days, I want to scream. Some days, I just get angry. And some days I say, 'Okay, you [made] your bed, you're gonna lay in it'," said Dowell. "But it affects my friends and my family, too. So it's like, emotionally, this is very difficult because I just think about a pandemic as everybody rallying together in a dangerous situation to get through it."

Dowell and Crampton hope that residents will make choices to protect each other going forward, like getting vaccinated.

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