Fear and Avoidance of Healthcare Workers: An Important and Under-Recognized Form of Stigmatization during the COVID-19 Pandemic

Authored By: Steven Taylor, Caeleigh A. Landry, Geoffrey S. Rachor, Michelle M. Paluszek, and Gordon J. G. Asmundson

During previous infectious disease outbreaks (e.g., the 2003 severe acute respiratory syndrome epidemic), healthcare workers have reported experiencing stigma, including being feared, avoided, and shunned. This stigma was due to the publics’ fears that healthcare workers were infected. Experiencing stigma adds to the significant stress that healthcare workers already face when working during infectious disease outbreaks, and can contribute to burnout in healthcare workers.

This study evaluated healthcare worker stigmatization in 3,551 Canadians and Americans who were not healthcare workers. The researchers examined behaviours and personal characteristics that might be related to healthcare worker stigmatization. The researchers also assessed whether healthcare worker stigmatization was related to COVID Stress Syndrome, which centers around worries about the dangerousness of COVID-19, and of becoming infected with COVID-19. The participants in the study completed an online survey in May 2020, during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The researchers found significant levels of stigmatizing attitudes towards healthcare workers among the general population, finding that 25-36% of people believed healthcare workers should be subject to severe restrictions (e.g., not going out in public, being separated from their families), and that 33-47% of people said they avoid healthcare workers because they are afraid of becoming infected with COVID-19. People who stigmatized healthcare workers also reported avoiding contact with other people (e.g., avoiding going to the grocery store, avoiding leaving their homes). Those who reported more COVID-related stress also endorsed greater stigmatizing attitudes towards healthcare workers.

Overall, the results of the study suggest that healthcare worker stigmatization is a widespread and under-recognized problem. A third of participants reported believing that it is likely a healthcare worker has COVID-19, which is not accurate because the vast majority (97%) of healthcare workers are not infected with the virus. Given the relationship between COVID Stress Syndrome and healthcare worker stigmatization, it is possible that treatments that reduce COVID Stress Syndrome could also reduce healthcare worker stigmatization; however, more research is needed to evaluate this possibility. Public health campaigns are needed to educate people on the low risk healthcare workers pose to the general public, which may reduce healthcare worker stigmatization.

Lay Summary written by Kelsey D. Vig. Edited by Geoffrey S. Rachor

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