Experts will tell you that the psychological toll of a disaster doesn’t hit with full force until after the crisis passes. That was true in the wake of the 1997 Red River flood that devastated Grand Forks.

And psychologists expect that it will be true when the coronavirus pandemic finally abates, likely sometime in the coming year. The ensuing psychological aftermath of the pandemic will sweep through society as a “second wave.”

Perhaps nowhere will that second wave strike with greater force than among the front-line health workers who have endured incredible strains for month after wearying month as they have selflessly taken care of the sick, including those severely ill with COVID-19.

We sometimes use the phrase all too casually, but these front-line health workers truly have been heroes throughout this long and demanding pandemic.

A varied range of health workers — doctors, nurses, respiratory therapists, aides, technicians and environmental services employees — have staffed our hospital wards, clinics and nursing homes.

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They find themselves having to treat a challenging new disease that attacks the body in a multitude of unpredictable ways, sometimes resulting in abrupt deterioration with little or no warning.

Because family members often can’t be at the bedside with their loved ones, doctors and nurses find serving as surrogate family members. They serve as the conduit of information and, when nobody else can be present, they provide compassionate care for dying COVID-19 patients.

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Nurses have battled exhaustion, sometimes working 60-hour weeks in a job that is demanding and stressful. These conditions, over time, take an inevitable toll on their emotional and mental health.

It’s no wonder that some health workers on the front lines develop mental scars similar to those of combat soldiers, including anxiety, depression, insomnia, burnout and post-traumatic stress.

The big unknown is how many will develop these problems and what that will do to the staffing levels of already stressed health systems. How many will retire early? How many will decide to switch careers? How many will require counseling in order to cope?

Health providers and state health officials are well aware of these possibilities. They have responded with programs to provide counseling and support. Legislators should ensure that these efforts are well-funded so that those who need the help will get it and our health systems remain intact.

The walls of the special care unit, where COVID-19 patients are cared for at Sanford Broadway Medical Center, are festooned with thank you notes from appreciative school children. They are a touching display of gratitude and recognition of the service those who staff the unit are going through.

But we need to do more than just dangle tokens of appreciation and mouth platitudes. One very real way people can help these health care heroes is to continue taking precautions to prevent the spread of the highly contagious virus.

Steps including avoiding large gatherings, wearing masks and maintaining social distancing are crucial. North Dakotans have acted with commendable personal responsibility in recent weeks, driving down infections and hospitalizations.

But we can’t let our guard down during the holiday season, when we’re naturally drawn to gather with friends and family. We have to maintain our diligence for a few more months until enough of us are vaccinated to subdue the virus.

That’s one way each of us can show our health workers we truly appreciate their selfless dedication and sacrifice.