My son Nick has a dangerous job. Nick is a cop. He mans the front line against crime.
But right now, my brother-in-law Chris just might have an even more dangerous job.
Chris is also on the front line… confronting a pandemic that seems a lot scarier than crime these days. He runs the emergency ward of one of Seattle’s biggest hospitals. It’s not exactly ground zero for the novel coronavirus, but it’s pretty close. As of this writing, Washington state has 273 confirmed COVID-19 cases. COVID-19 has killed 23 people so far in the Seattle area. And Washington’s governor just banned gatherings of more than 250 people in the region.
Things are pretty bad there. And Chris is at the epicenter.
To say that he’s frustrated, angry and appalled doesn’t begin to do justice to his state of mind.
The waiting area in his emergency room is overflowing with people 24/7. That’s normal. But by visiting the ER, those patients are putting their health… possibly their lives… at risk. And that’s not normal. His emergency ward is crawling with germs. He says if you want to expose yourself to the coronavirus, there’s no better place to go. It’s like walking into an ambush with no protection… and no way to defend yourself.
Chris wears protective garments and gear. And so do his fellow doctors and nurses. Every time he sees a new patient, he changes into a new garment. It costs a lot of money. But at least the healthcare providers are well-protected.
But Chris frets over his patients. Why a mother would bring in a baby with a slight cough or mild fever is beyond him. “Kids are ‘hacking up loogies’ and doing all kinds of unsanitary things. Why a mother would expose her small children or babies to a hothouse of dangerous germs is beyond me.”
The frustrations don’t end there. Chris can test for various viruses, including various coronaviruses. The one virus he doesn’t have a test for is the new coronavirus, the one spreading like wildfire. So he tests for the other viruses. If the results are negative, he takes a swab and sends it off to the local lab. The hospital’s courier service picks up at certain times every day, so results (let alone delivery) are rarely immediate. In the meantime, Chris sends these patients home and suggests they self-quarantine. Hours later, Chris gets the results. And he then informs the patient of the good or not-so-good news.
As far as diabolical setups go, this is a pretty good one. Like any good doctor, Chris wants to limit the contagion. He wants to treat infected patients as quickly and efficiently as possible. At the very least, he wants to follow the Hippocratic oath of “do no harm.” He can’t even claim that.
I talked with Chris yesterday. He has the week off. And he was out camping with his wife. Their campsite overlooks the Pacific Ocean. He sounds weary but calmer than in recent days. He said it was very peaceful there. “People are venturing out less. There’s not many people here.”
It’s a much-deserved and too brief respite. But Chris will take it. His next shift begins this weekend. He says the public labs just began making coronavirus tests available, so testing will be less of a bottleneck.
Chris also says this is not the beginning of the end, he says. It’s still early. “We need to get a handle on the denominator – how many are infected. Then we can determine fatality rates and other stuff. Maybe it’s really low. Maybe not. We don’t have the data yet to understand even the basics of this virus.”
In the meantime, he says, be very careful. This thing is real and very contagious.
You should trust him on that. I do. I asked him about my shoulder surgery next week. I told him I was thinking about waiting on it because of the coronavirus.
“No need,” he told me. “Outpatient surgery is one of the safest places you can go. You’re separated from the sick patients. And the medical personnel you’ll see that day will have scrubbed their hands a hundred times.”
He said they’ll be operating on the basis of mutual deterrence. They don’t want to make patients sick. And they won’t want patients to make them sick.
That sounds reassuring, I said.
“Just be careful. Nowhere is safe, not even your local grocery store. The cart you’re pushing, for example. Many people have touched it. And now you have too.”
That wasn’t reassuring at all. Chris didn’t exactly say it. But he didn’t have to. While some things, like the availability of tests, are improving, the worst likely lies ahead…
I’m not panicking. But I am being cautious. I’m trusting experts like Chris to guide us through this. And so should you.