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March 18, 2020

To protect their families from COVID-19, doctors and nurses are taking extraordinary measures

Daily Briefing

    The rise in cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus, is stoking anxiety among providers, who worry they might catch the virus and carry it home to their families, Karen Weise reports for the New York Times

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    About the pandemic

    The United States saw its first COVID-19 case in late January, and cases have spiked since then. As of Wednesday morning, state and federal officials had reported 5,881 cases of COVID-19 and 107 deaths linked to the new coronavirus in the United States. Officials have now reported at least one case of COVID-19 in all 50 states and Washington, D.C., as well as in three U.S. territories.

    Providers face uncertain conditions at work

    Doctors and nurses across the country are working long hours with limited supplies to treat an increasing number of patients with COVID-19, Weise reports.

    "I haven't slept for longer than three hours in the past two weeks," Stephen Anderson, an ED physician at MultiCare Auburn Medical Center outside Seattle, said.

    Doctors and nurses, many of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity, said they're being forced to reuse protective gear such as masks and in some instances providers are bringing in their own protective gear from home.

    Anderson said he's been wearing one surgical mask per shift because his hospital was down to a two-day supply of surgical masks. He cleans the mask each time he takes it off and puts it on. "Those are supposed to be disposable," he said. "[W]hen you're potentially touching something that has the virus that could kill you on it, and you’re doing it 25 times a shift, it's kind of nerve-racking."

    At one rural hospital, nurses have been instructed to wash their work clothes at home, while physicians are provided with shower facilities and clean scrubs, Weise reports.

    Providers feel growing anxiety over potential COVID-19 exposure

    The long hours and uncertain conditions have many providers feeling like they are "flying blind" and anxiety levels are running high, Weise reports.

    "Most physicians have never seen this level of angst and anxiety in their careers," Anderson said.

    Many physicians are worried that they'll contract the disease and are going to extreme measures to avoid potentially infecting their families, Weise reports.

    "I am dipping myself into the swamp every day. I am sort of a pariah in my family," Anderson said.

    According to Weise, one group of doctors have been considering renting Airbnbs to serve as a "dirty doc" living quarters to avoid coming home after work and endangering their families. One ED doctor in Utah strips naked on her porch before running inside to take a shower, Weise reports.

    Others are preparing their families for the possibility that they might become critically ill—or worse, Weise reports. Some doctors are sharing their passwords and insurance with their partners in case they get sick. Kay Moody, an ED physician in Washington who runs a Facebook group of 22,000 emergency physicians, said she knows one doctor whose spouse threatened to take their children away if they continued to work.

    On top of concerns about their health, physicians and nurses who work as contractors have financial concerns. If they are forced to stop working and become quarantined they risk not being paid, meaning they could fail to provide for their families.

    "As it stands, that is one of the most anxiety-provoking things," Moody said, "on top of fear for your life" (Weise, New York Times, 3/16).

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