In the early months of 2020, doctors were left responsible to treat a little-known virus that prompted the worst pandemic the world had seen in a century – risking their lives in the process. During the study timeframe, from March 2020 to December 2021, 622 more physicians died than expected, according to a recently released study.
Physicians had much lower excess mortality than the general population, perhaps indicative that protective equipment and workplace measures were effective, the researchers wrote.
Despite a potentially higher risk of being exposed to COVID-19, active physicians had a lower risk of being infected than non-active physicians.
"Non-active physicians are those that are retired, semi-retired, or just not actively practicing medicine. Further research is necessary, but that active physicians had lower excess deaths suggests workplace interventions could have protected them," Mathew Kiang, ScD, assistant professor of epidemiology and population health at Stanford University and author of the study, told ABC News.
Yet, health care workers were left with limited protective equipment in the very early days of the pandemic.
"We felt powerless because there were a lot of unknowns … that powerlessness was felt in the fact that we couldn't adequately protect ourselves," Dr. Peter Chin-Hong, an infectious disease specialist at the University of California, San Francisco, told ABC News. He then recounted discussions on disinfecting previously used masks with UV light and how mask drives were organized to obtain more supplies.
At the time, the hospital environment was filled with uncertainty and fear.
"In the beginning, as I like to say, we all opened up our textbooks to COVID and we only had blank pages, because there had not been any experience with COVID," Dr. William Schaffner, a professor of infectious diseases at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, told ABC News.
"It was a very scary time. I remember seeing the first patient who had COVID and even though I'm not in the highest risk category I was really scared," Chin-Hong said.
He said many of his colleagues left their hospital scrubs in the trunk of the car, showered before entering their homes, or even lived away from their families during that period.
There were no excess deaths in the physician population after April 2021, the same time vaccines became widely available, according to the study. The study doesn't prove cause-and-effect between the two, but the vaccine's presence was undoubtedly appreciated.
"Vaccines certainly added a lot of comfort with health care in general and delivering it. They provided that bonus of protection. We obviously saw immediate benefit in our patient populations when vaccines were rolled out, it was like night and day," said Dr. Darien Sutton, an emergency medicine physician, and ABC News contributor.
Throughout the pandemic, nearly half of U.S. health care workers say they had suffered from burnout – with women being disproportionately affected than men.
"The pandemic has exacerbated all parameters that define burnout. When you look at providers from physicians to nurses at the bedside, many feel overworked, underpaid, and under-appreciated in these positions," Sutton said.
The U.S. continues to average around 500 COVID deaths per day, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
"If you're admitted with COVID, [physicians] are very assertive in treating you and have every expectation that even the most fragile patients will be able to get out of the intensive care unit and will be able to be discharged," Schaffner said.
"The main takeaway is that frontline health care providers like physicians are crucial in our response to the pandemic and we need to do a better job protecting them in future epidemics," Kiang said.