Faces of the Pandemic: Dr. Greg Balko sees “light at the end of the tunnel”
Emergency medicine physician copes with pandemic fatigue, finds optimism in a vaccinated future
As much as anyone else, Dr. Greg Balko is tired of the pandemic.
The emergency medicine physician and director of board at Aspen Valley Hospital said that he and other health care workers on the front lines in Aspen are experiencing the same pandemic fatigue that has wearied many in the face of COVID-19.
“We’re able to keep up with the caseload, but it’s just mentally getting old at this point,” Balko said. “We’re just as tired of it as everybody else is, but it is what it is.”
Balko said he understands the desire to travel, to get out and do things. He feels it too.
And “there will be a time and a place for that again,” he said — just not yet.
“I get how people have been doing this (for) 10 or 11 months, and they want to get back to a sense of normalcy,” Balko said. “But I think people need to understand that it’s the worst now than has ever been.”
In the early months of the pandemic, the emergency room was so quiet it was almost “eerie,” he said; he attributes that March and April slowdown to stay-at-home orders and fears of contracting the virus in a hospital.
“Fast forward to now, we’re still seeing what we would normally see, but we’ve got COVID superimposed on it now,” he said. With record-high numbers of COVID-19 cases in recent weeks, Balko said, “we’re seeing more and more patients on a daily basis, and we’re starting to see pretty sick patients again.”
A year-end series by The Aspen Times taking a look at the people behind the masks who helped our community get through 2020. To read more profiles, go to aspentimes.com/faces-of-the-pandemic.
The virus adds an additional strain on staff already treating patients who come in with other injuries and maladies that require urgent attention (think appendicitis, or a skiing injury). To boot, hospital staff must get “suited up” every time they enter the room when a patient has COVID-19.
“It’s on top of the volume that we already have,” Balko said. And it’s getting worse, not better.
“There’s a mental toll associated with it,” he said. “You do wonder, every time you go in the room, is one of you or your colleagues going to get the virus yourself?”
There is frustration, too, Balko said: he sees patients who have brushed aside guidelines designed to keep the community safe and hears stories of those who defy public health orders.
Most of the non-local patients he sees with COVID-19 contracted the virus here in Pitkin County, but some have eschewed the affidavit program and may be bringing more cases into the area, he said; Balko also is concerned about a post-holiday bump in cases caused by informal gatherings.
“I didn’t go out, but I certainly question how many people really respected the public health order,” Balko said. “As a result of that, are we going to have even a higher surge because people are irresponsible?”
Aspen Valley Hospital has planned for a surge if it were to occur; hospital capacity remains within comfortable levels, and the first round of vaccinations already underway for health care workers will help reduce the risk of a staffing shortage caused by employees in quarantine or isolation, Balko said.
But that comfortable capacity “could change rather quickly if things got even further out of control,” Balko said. Even though staff are able to keep up with the current caseload, the ever-increasing number of patients also leads to mental exhaustion — that aforementioned pandemic fatigue that especially applies to those on the front lines.
“If you look at it in the short term it could be pretty depressing,” he said.
Balko said he and other staff regularly talk about their concerns to cope with the mental burden of the COVID-19 pandemic; the hospital also maintains a relationship with mental health support services like Mind Springs Health and the Aspen Hope Center.
“We’re a pretty cohesive unit and team, and we’ve got each other’s back,” he said. “We’re just there for one another.”
The vaccine is a “light at the end of the tunnel” after a challenging year, Balko said. “I have a strong feeling that, come this summer, we’re going to be coming out of this.”
But even though an end is in sight through Balko’s lens, the doctor urged that there is still a long road ahead before a return to normal life.
“We’re going to get through this, but in the meantime, people need to be aware of the fact that the numbers that we’re seeing on a daily basis are the worst we’ve ever seen,” he said. “It’s too early now to be letting your guard down.”
“Try and look out for your fellow man and do the responsible thing.”
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