(iStock; Lily illustration)

“We don’t know what to do,” says Catherine Jones, a registered nurse at a Boston-area community health center.

As the uncertainty surrounding covid-19 quickly mounted in recent weeks, 30-year-old Jones and her colleagues at their understaffed clinic had largely been left up to their own devices. They’d been forced to decide, ad hoc, when and where to don masks, gowns and gloves amid nationwide shortages — and to deliberate as to who among their largely low-income, immigrant patients was most in need of in-person care.

Covid-19 has arrived with a vengeance in Massachusetts as elsewhere, the initial trickle of patients intensifying into a deluge: As of Wednesday, the state had reported nearly 7,738 positive cases, including at least 122 deaths. These days, Jones, who is attending school to be a nurse practitioner, has found that her conversations with the center’s patients are an exercise in both triage and therapy. Work like this is why she went into nursing in the first place: “A lot of it falls back on good communication,” Jones says, “knowing how to listen and gather information” — how to provide “peace of mind” while making or contributing to high-stakes decisions.

Research shows that women are stronger empathizers than men, which helps explain why they make up nearly 9 in 10 of the country’s registered nurses and 3 in 4 of its health-care workers overall. But that context also hints at the pronounced emotional toll the coronavirus pandemic could have on female health-care professionals, who already suffer from higher rates of burnout than their male counterparts. A recent study found high rates of “depression, anxiety, insomnia, and distress” among workers on the front lines of covid-19 in China — problems that were especially pronounced among women.

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