‘We’re all scared’

A Jamaican-born cardiologist practising in the United States has painted a grim picture of the onslaught of COVID-19 in that country, detailing the severe impact the disease is having on front-line workers.

Dr Robert Clarke, who was a guest on Tuesday evening’s digital town hall meeting hosted by the Jamaican Embassy in the United States, shared that at least one of his colleagues had been crippled by the infectious disease and another had succumbed as a result.

“Honestly, it’s very sombre,” Dr Clarke told panellists and viewers when asked what the mood was like at his East Orange General Hospital in New Jersey.

“It’s very scary. In fact, we just lost one of our practitioners today (yesterday), unfortunately. We have another one in the ICU (intensive care unit) and several who have been quarantined. I, myself, was on-call last night and I got about 70 patients who are COVID-positive, so you know it’s tough. It’s hard but it’s a fight that we all have to do,” a seemingly dejected Dr Clarke added.

Up to press time last evening, the US had surpassed 200,000 coronavirus cases with more than 4,000 deaths.

Yesterday, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said the state accounted for more than 83,000 of the total infections and 1,941 of the deaths, while neighbouring New Jersey was the second-hardest hit state, with more than 18,000 cases and 267 deaths.

“As practitioners, we signed on to this when we graduated medical school and we took an oath to help and do no harm… so this is what we do and this is what we have to do despite the challenges and lack of equipment, lack of PPEs (personal protective equipment). The struggle continues.

“We’re all scared, to be honest with you, but we journey on regardless. We hope for the best; we pray… We try to pray and eat right, exercise, but you never know. There are so many unknowns about this virus that makes us really scared or unsure as to how to really navigate through all of this, despite you putting on all the PPEs and going into rounds, seeing your patients coming out, you know? Things do happen, and whether it be technique or whether it be how the virus is misunderstood: ‘Is it airborne? Is it droplets?’ We know it’s droplets but is a portion of it airborne? That’s another thing, because people are getting it even sometimes when they have done all the necessary precautions, we’re still getting infected and stuff like that, so it’s tough,” he expressed.

At the Texas hospital where nurse practitioner Leonie Hall works, much-needed PPE is reportedly behind lock and key, while others are simply lacking.

Hall, a Jamaican also working in the US health care system for more than 20 years, finds this measure by administrators troubling, especially with the rapid spread of the disease.

Nearly 4,000 COVID-19 cases were reported in the state up to press time last evening, with more than 40 deaths.

But, a countrywide shortage of PPE, such as gloves and N-95 masks, as well as cleaning supplies coupled with the stealing of these items by some health care professionals, has seemingly left the hospital with little choice.

“We as health care workers are not protected. We are not covered. In my specific hospital, they took all the N-95 masks out of circulation and those are the only masks that are effective as protection against the virus. The regular masks, which offer minimum protection, were also taken out of circulation, but some people were given one mask each and told that they have to use that for all their patients,” Hall told the Observer in an interview on Monday.

According to Hall, health care workers have been told that they are not taking care of infected individuals and so do not require certain PPE.

“How will you know that? The first person who died at a hospital in Houston, he was admitted into the facility prior to the outbreak being recognised in Houston. He subsequently became worse and they decided to do the COVID-19 test on him. He died the following day; the COVID-19 test came back positive the following day. Now all the people who took care of him without wearing protective gear, all the visitors were exposed,” she pointed out.

Hall argued that the position taken by the hospital is dangerous, because some people with the virus are asymptomatic.

“I’m very concerned about it because I’m in what is considered the high-risk group. I have a history of asthma so my job is to try to protect me as much as possible,” she said, adding that she tries adhering to the advice given in order to avoid contracting the disease.

In the meantime, Dr Clarke is encouraging medical practitioners to operate as if everyone they come in contact with has the virus.

This, he suggested, will help to limit the spread of the highly contagious disease, which is wreaking havoc globally.

“I try to disinfect surfaces, including my vehicle when I touch it, door knobs, desks, and stuff like that, anything you get in contact with. You have to wash your hands [for] at least 20 seconds, through the creases. You sneeze in your elbow if you don’t have tissue. You stay six feet apart from people. Again, you pretend as if everybody is infected, so you try to protect yourself,” he said.