COVID-19 and the psychological side effects of PPE


A few months ago, I published a short thought piece on the use of “sitters” with patients who were COVID-19 positive, or patients under investigation. In it, I recommended the use of telesitters for those who normally would warrant a human sitter, to decrease the discomfort of sitting in full personal protective equipment (PPE) (gown, mask, gloves, etc.) while monitoring a suicidal patient.

Dr. Elspeth Cameron Ritchie

I received several queries, which I want to address here. In addition, I want to draw from my Army days in terms of the claustrophobia often experienced with PPE.

The first of the questions was about evidence-based practices. The second was about the discomfort of having sitters sit for many hours in the full gear.

I do not know of any evidence-based practices, but I hope we will develop them.

I agree that spending many hours in full PPE can be discomforting, which is why I wrote the essay.

As far as lessons learned from the Army time, I briefly learned how to wear a “gas mask” or Mission-Oriented Protective Posture (MOPP gear) while at Fort Bragg. We were run through the “gas chamber,” where sergeants released tear gas while we had the mask on. We were then asked to lift it up, and then tearing and sputtering, we could leave the small wooden building.

We wore the mask as part of our Army gear, usually on the right leg. After that, I mainly used the protective mask in its bag as a pillow when I was in the field.

Fast forward to August 1990. I arrived at Camp Casey, near the Korean demilitarized zone. Four days later, Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait. The gas mask moved from a pillow to something we had to wear while doing 12-mile road marches in “full ruck.” In full ruck, you have your uniform on, with TA-50, knapsack, and weapon. No, I do not remember any more what TA-50 stands for, but essentially it is the webbing that holds your bullets and bandages.

Many could not tolerate it. They developed claustrophobia – sweating, air hunger, and panic. If stationed in the Gulf for Operation Desert Storm, they were evacuated home.

I wrote a couple of short articles on treatment of gas mask phobia.1,2 I basically advised desensitization. Start by watching TV in it for 5 minutes. Graduate to ironing your uniform in the mask. Go then to shorter runs. Work up to the 12-mile road march.

In my second tour in Korea, we had exercises where we simulated being hit by nerve agents and had to operate the hospital for days at a time in partial or full PPE. It was tough but we did it, and felt more confident about surviving attacks from North Korea.

So back to the pandemic present. I have gotten more used to my constant wearing of a surgical mask. I get anxious when I see others with masks below their noses. I almost panic when others do not wear their masks at all, such as the lady today who was brushing her teeth in the shared ladies’ restroom.

The pandemic is not going away anytime soon, in my opinion. Furthermore, there are other viruses that are worse, such as Ebola. It is only a matter of time.

So, let us train with our PPE. If health care workers cannot tolerate them, use desensitization- and anxiety-reducing techniques to help them.

There are no easy answers here, in the time of the COVID pandemic. However, we owe it to ourselves, our patients, and society to do the best we can.


1. Ritchie EC. Milit Med. 1992 Feb;157(2):104-6.

2. Ritchie EC. Milit Med. 2001 Dec;166. Suppl. 2(1)83-4.

Dr. Ritchie is chair of psychiatry at Medstar Washington Hospital Center and professor of psychiatry at Georgetown University, Washington. She has no disclosures and can be reached at [email protected].

Recommended Reading

Distinguishing COVID-19 from flu in kids remains challenging
The Hospitalist
Lessons for patients with MS and COVID-19
The Hospitalist
Worry over family, friends the main driver of COVID-19 stress
The Hospitalist
In a time of two pandemics, a recommitment to work together
The Hospitalist
Infectious COVID-19 can persist in gut for weeks
The Hospitalist
Physician income drops, burnout spikes globally in pandemic
The Hospitalist
COVID-19 outcomes no worse in patients on TNF inhibitors or methotrexate
The Hospitalist
Tough to tell COVID from smoke inhalation symptoms — And flu season’s coming
The Hospitalist
Conspiracy theories
The Hospitalist
Children and COVID-19: New cases may be leveling off
The Hospitalist
   Comments ()