Last week, I shared an opinion piece written by Gregory Jasani, an emergency medicine resident at the University of Maryland Medical Center. In it, he issued a stern warning to all who disregard social distancing mandates. “Every time we interact with an infected patient, our own risk of contracting the virus increases,” he wrote. “Even if we only suffer mild symptoms, we will be forced to isolate ourselves so that we do not pass the virus to our patients. Losing medical providers at this crucial moment is something that our healthcare system simply cannot afford to do,” he added.
Other medical personnel on the frontlines of this pandemic are also starting to speak out on the need for greater compliance with the social distancing directive. In a recent investigative report by Sheri Fink, Pulitzer Prize-winning correspondent for The New York Times, she tells the story of 31 year-old Dr. Yijiao Fan, an oral surgery resident at Brooklyn Hospital Center. In good health and with no prior medical issues, he tested positive for the virus. “He had been in isolation at home all week and thought he was getting better, but began coughing blood that morning,” she writes. “He was awaiting a chest scan.” He had a message for a nation debating how to fight the pandemic. “It was short enough to whisper between coughing fits: Just stay home.”
In a press conference earlier this week, President Donald Trump announced a monthlong extension of federal guidelines to limit public gatherings, calling it “a matter of life and death.”
New York state is the most affected state in the nation and serves as a case in point as to why staying home is so important. According to the Times, at last count the coronavirus pandemic has infected more than 30,000 people in New York City. It is “beginning to take a toll on those who are most needed to combat it: the doctors, nurses and other workers at hospitals and clinics,” according to The New York Times.
As noted in several recent New York Times stories, the city’s health care system is sprawling and disjointed. This makes exact infection rates among medical workers difficult to calculate. Without question, the number is growing. As noted by the Times’ Michael Schwirtz, “arriving to work each day, doctors and nurses are met with confusion and chaos,” and, “At Columbia University Irving Medical Center in Manhattan … half the intensive-care staff had already been sickened by coronavirus.” The subheadline of Schwirtz’s article reads, “Anxiety is growing among normally dispassionate medical professionals.”
Yet, day after day, around the nation, they still show up and do their jobs.
Brooklyn Hospital Center is a small, independent, 175-year-old institution where Walt Whitman would visit those wounded in the Civil War and where White House adviser Dr. Anthony Fauci was born. A tent now stands outside. As Fink observes, trainee doctors, nurses and other staff members are at work inside, diligently screening walk-in patients for the coronavirus. Medical students had been told to stop coming to the hospital the week before, yet they accounted for a majority of the doctors evaluating people inside the tent.
“They just take their courage in their hands,” Dr. Sylvie de Souza, chair of emergency medicine, tells the Times. “They put on their garb and they show up. That’s what they do. Of course they have anxiety, of course they have fear, they’re human. None of us knows where this is taking us. We don’t even know if we might get sick. But none of them so far has defaulted on their duty, their calling.”
As reported by Schwirtz, “There is also the fear of bringing the disease home to spouses and children. Some medical workers said they were sleeping in different rooms from their partners and even wearing surgical masks at home. Others have chosen to isolate themselves from their families completely, sending spouses and children to live outside the city, or moving into hotels.”
“At a branch of the Montefiore hospital system in the Bronx,” Schwirtz writes, “nurses wear their winter coats in an unheated tent set up to triage patients with symptoms. … This week, the Health and Hospitals Corporation recommended transferring doctors and nurses at higher risk of infection — such as those who are older or with underlying medical conditions — from jobs interacting with patients to more administrative positions.”
Kimberly Marsh, a nurse at Westchester Medical Center outside New York City, because of her age and existing health conditions, has been recommended for such a transfer. “She has no intention of leaving the fight,” writes Schwirtz.
“We all think we’re screwed,” Marsh tells the Times. “I know without any doubt that I’m going to lose colleagues. There’s just no way around it.”
Such acts of courage are not confined to New York. They are taking place across our nation. If we were talking about first responders fighting an apartment complex blaze, would you throw kerosene on it? If it were a unit of the U.S. military at work protecting the nation and fighting to eliminate a threat, would you broadcast their location to the enemy? Of course not.
What about the brave men and women of the medical profession and the volunteers responding to one of the greatest threats in recent memory to America and the world? How will we honor their service and sacrifice? Lip service is not enough. Social distancing, avoiding large public gathering venues, adhering to spacing requirements in the workplace and following proper personal hygiene practices is what is being asked of us. We all know by now what the right thing to do is. So, let’s all do it.