Coronavirus: Waiting for the Wave

In the space of just a few weeks, multiple private COVID-19 subgroups have formed on Facebook, including a massive healthcare worker group with 250,000 members, a doctor-mom-only group with 30,000 members, a physician group of 20,000 members, and more. Colleagues from all over the world are posting their experiences and their anxieties in real time. I’ve been pulled into a lot of these spaces, where we can share data, compare notes, and vent.

What I’m seeing come across my feed reflects our conflicting emotions and complex reality. Yes, there’s bold memes about courage, dedication, and teamwork in the face of danger. But there’s also fear, very real fear of dying, or worse, bringing the infection to someone and killing them.

Yes, doctors, nurses, and hospital staff have literally moved into hotels or are living in tents in their garage or sent their families to live with relatives in order to keep them safe. Why? We feel like pariahs, covered in virus particles. Everyone’s seen the news reports: we’re more at risk for infection. A good friend of mine at Boston Medical Center has just sent her husband and two kids to live with her parents in another state while she leads an inpatient COVID-19 unit. Other moms who are working in emergency rooms and on the floors feel like they can’t even breastfeed their babies. Folks are making sacrifices that can’t even be imagined, and putting on a brave face for their loved ones. But what they share within these private groups reveals how much these sacrifices are crushing them inside.

And there’s worse. There are hospitals around the country that are forbidding their staff from wearing appropriate protective gear, even if it’s brought from home. Why? Administrators are saying that because they don’t have enough in stock for everyone, everyone has to abide by the same limited in-house supplies. I’m very thankful to work at a hospital that is providing surgical masks for everyone, all the time, no matter what, as well as N-95 masks for high-risk situations. My colleague in another state is immunocompromised, and an anesthesiologist. She performs intubations, a high-risk procedure, and because her hospital was not cancelling elective surgery nor providing the appropriate N-95 masks, she had to take a medical leave. If I knew my hospital would keep me safe, I would stay at work, she explained, anguished.

And it gets worse than that. There are posted stories of healthcare workers being yelled at by strangers, even assaulted because they were wearing scrubs. Why? Some people believe that the economic shutdown is the doctors’ fault, likely because of the words of our president a few days ago: “If it were up to the doctors, the world would be shut down for a couple of years”. As if we want any of this to be happening.

But there is also understanding and support. Communities are organizing meal trains, loudly cheering their hospital workers at change of shift, and donating protective gear. To the family that baked a vegetarian lasagna for us last week, and a bottle of Italian red to go with it, thank you! And of course to my mom who brought us cookies today, appreciated! To the neighbors who have offered surgical masks and other gear, my aunt who is sewing cloth masks, your generosity and efforts are so uplifting. To everyone everywhere who is staying home and suffering through homeschooling, loss of income, maybe loss of a job, know that you are really and truly saving lives by doing so.

Here in Boston, many of us in primary care are feeling especially conflicted. Things are just ramping up. We’ve been asked to volunteer for backup duty in the respiratory clinics and on the inpatient floors, but there hasn’t been much real need yet. For the past week we’ve been frantically clearing the way: We’re calling our patients to cancel appointments, offering telephone visits instead, reviewing results lists and refilling meds, getting all caught up, while also reading up on everything COVID-19.

We know what’s coming, we realize we’re not far behind New York here. Their hospitals are already being overrun, just as Spain’s are and Italy’s were, just as they will be everywhere soon. But right now it’s the calm before the storm, and as one of my colleagues put it, “I’m feeling very frustratingly underutilized right now… but also terrified.”

That sums up how so many of us are feeling, as we wait for the wave to break over us.

Me at work this week, making phone calls and waiting to be called in.

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