We must stop COVID shame in its tracks

Last month, I was in a meeting with several clinical leaders, and—no surprise here—the conversation quickly shifted to the rising COVID-19 cases in our communities. As I write this in mid-October, new cases were surging in several Midwestern states, including Iowa, Illinois and Wisconsin.

It got me thinking not only about the virus’ physical toll, but also the emotional anguish it creates. If you’ve worked in healthcare during the past seven months, it’s likely you’ve experienced some elevated fear and anxiety because of COVID-19. Perhaps you’ve been one of the unlucky ones to contract the virus. And when I say, “unlucky,” I mean just that. For many people, COVID-19 has created the unfortunate side effect of feeling shameful. There is an unspoken stigma around testing positive—especially for healthcare workers—and it’s an important issue that needs to be addressed.

Thankfully, organizations have effective processes and protocols in place to protect their team members against COVID-19. But we are all human beings with lives outside of work, which leaves a margin for error. No matter how careful we are, no matter how faithfully we wear our masks and social distance—there is still risk. Everyone is vulnerable to this virus.

However, it’s critical to remind ourselves and our colleagues—getting COVID does not necessarily equate to carelessness.

In fact, that entire premise reminded me of an article I read about a Seattle woman and her family who contracted COVID-19 during the initial outbreak. She talked about how diligent she was—taking every precaution necessary—and the guilt she felt disclosing their status to others. The truth is that they were just unlucky.

She said, “We have no idea how we acquired COVID-19. Was it the time my husband grabbed a package straight off the porch? Did one of the kids have it and pass it to us? Was it at one of the kids’ activities where I might not have used enough hand sanitizer? Was it a time I sped through the second round of ‘Happy Birthday’ while washing my hands? We will never know. We were careful and pointing fingers would do nothing.”

Reread that last sentence. Pointing fingers does nothing.

Outside of work, it’s not our job to police our neighbors, family or friends about their choices. But as healthcare workers, it is our responsibility to be good role models for others without being unkind or judgmental. That means wearing our masks when we’re at the grocery store, doing the “elbow bump” instead of a handshake or high five, and practicing social distancing, even when we long for the closeness of our family and friends.

Whether it’s a family member, colleague or even yourself, we must always offer our compassion to those who have been diagnosed with COVID-19. As healthcare workers, we know all too well about the possibility of a long, hard road ahead for them. Making our colleagues feel guilty is the opposite of what they need from us. Instead, let’s lend our support and care.

Let’s practice giving grace—starting today. If someone you know tests positive, give them grace. If you test positive, give yourself grace too. After all, it’s what we do for our patients, so why not extend the same compassion toward each other?

Individual blame is not the cure for COVID-19. Instead, let’s do what we do best and foster an environment where people feel supported, not shamed. As members of our communities, let’s do our part to erase the stigma and assume the very best in people. There’s enough hostility in the world. Let’s do what we signed up for and care for people—and each other—with empathy and compassion.