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Coronavirus: NYC hospital staff reveal ‘unthinkable’ working conditions as they battle pandemic

Exclusive: Doctors facing severe shortage of protective medical gear say ‘most of us have accepted the reality that there’s a good chance we will be contracting this virus’

Chris Riotta
New York
Thursday 26 March 2020 20:28 GMT
Andrew Cuomo demands New York City limit density: 'This is not a joke'

Doctors and nurses on the front lines of the coronavirus pandemic in New York City have revealed “unthinkable” working conditions to The Independent while the state grapples with a severe shortage of life-saving medical supplies.

As the city finds itself at the core of an unfolding nationwide crisis, with more confirmed Covid-19 cases than anywhere else in the country, hospital staff and medical volunteers in New York are resorting to sewing their own makeshift face masks while fearing they will soon contract the novel virus due to a lack of proper protocol.

“My colleagues and I are re-using N95 masks for days at a time, which was unthinkable before,” A resident physician at Mount Sinai Hospital said on Thursday. “Look, we’re doing things that at any other time would be considered unsafe practice and that we would be called out for. But there’s simply no other option given the volume that we’re dealing with. We were not prepared for this.”

Nurses who have treated Covid-19 patients have already contracted the virus, including Mount Sinai West nursing manager Kious Jordan Kelly, 48, who passed away on Tuesday.

In a statement, the hospital said it was “deeply saddened by the passing of a beloved member of our nursing staff” and “taking every precaution possible to protect everyone” under the current circumstances.

Multiple medical professionals who spoke to The Independent for this report said they had been advised by their hospitals not to speak to the media amid the outbreak, but said they felt it was their obligation to keep the public informed about the severe working conditions they are facing amid the extreme surge of Covid-19 patients.

“We are definitely on the front lines. It’s overwhelming,” Ese, a registered nurse at New York Presbyterian Hospital, told The Independent about the influx of Covid-19 patients in recent days. She asked to only be identified by her first name.

Ese said New Yorkers “need to understand how overwhelmed” city hospitals have become due to the pandemic, with more than 20,000 confirmed cases as of Wednesday, as well as “the importance of self-isolating” amid the outbreak.

She added: “It just doesn’t seem like there is a light at the end of the tunnel.”

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo ordered the entirety of the state’s workforce to stay home as of Friday, excluding essential services, describing the move as “the ultimate step” to help flatten the curve and ensure hospitals don’t exceed their capacities.

Still, many people have continued to host large gatherings and effectively ignore the guidelines. If city residents continue failing to adhere to the stringent measures, health officials warned of a potentially catastrophic situation in which hospitals lack ICU beds, ventilators, face masks and even doctors to deal with the surge of patients.

In some cases, doctors have posted desperate pleas online for people to practise social distancing and donate critical medical supplies they may have on hand, like N95 face masks or personal protective equipment, otherwise known as PPE.

Craig Spencer, director of global health in emergency medicine at Columbia Medicine, wrote on Twitter: “Our best hope right now is social distancing, or limiting our exposure to others. This slows how fast the virus moves in our communities, which decreases how many people get infected, which slows the spread of the virus, and so on.

“If we can do this NOW by limiting these exposures – at bars, restaurants, schools, etc – we can decrease the number of people coming to our ERs every day,” he added. “Our system will still be stressed, but not overwhelmed.”

State officials have been in close communication with the federal government, which has committed to sending thousands of ventilators and additional military resources to cope with the sudden rise of critically ill patients.

But several nurses said their hospitals began facing shortages well before the governor issued a stay-at-home order on Friday.

One registered nurse at Stony Brook Medicine said hospitals began experiencing a “dangerous” shortage a week prior to the governor’s orders. The nurse, who worked in a surgical area prior to the pandemic, was moved to an ICU built for Covid-19 patients as the hospital cancelled all elective procedures.

“We’re just trying to keep up and keep people alive,” she said. “We are being told to re-use N95 respirators. Apparently my N95 respirator can be used up to 30 days. I found that baffling.”

They added: “What I really want the public to know is that the old and sick are not the only ones who are getting severely ill and dying from this virus. Both of my patients I took care of over the weekend were in their 30’s. Both with no known past medical history.”

Meanwhile, hospital residency programmes have taken the extraordinary measure of allowing their students to graduate early in order add a fleet of doctors to help fight the virus.

One of those students, who is graduating from the Icahn School of Medicine and asked to remain anonymous, said “the work load will be greater than ever before” but “the time for training and education will be at an all time low” as hospitals become inundated with patients and resources remain scarce in the days ahead.

“It’s hard to know at this point if we’ll be helping out substantially by bringing more staff” to city hospitals, they added, “or if we’ll be slowing down the work substantially by not knowing how to use certain electronic medical records, the appropriate people to consult, or the proper escalation of care in medical code situations.”

Some doctors have resigned themselves to the fact that they could very well become infected with the coronavirus as they continue to suffer the surge in patients combined with a lack of supplies.

“We’re all scared and anxious, just like everyone else. We also know that we have a duty to our patients and the city,” the resident physician at Mount Sinai said. “I think most of us have accepted the reality that there’s a good chance we will be contracting this virus at some point. All we can do is try our best not to, but without proper PPE, the likelihood of that happening skyrockets.”

They also said that the common narrative about young people not being susceptible to the worst symptoms of the coronavirus were “false” in his experience.

“Relatively young people — age 30 through 50 — often male, with little to no known past medical history are getting sick from this virus, getting intubated, [and] dying,” they said, adding: “The principles of social distancing are not solely for protecting your grandparents.”

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