Apr 6, 2020 - Health

Health care workers vs. the coronavirus

Illustrated collage featuring a Spanish fireman, paramedics transporting a patient to an emergency room entrance in Brooklyn, and someone writing out #heathcare heroes

Photo Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios. Photos: Angela Weiss/AFP via Getty Images, Bruce Bennett/Getty Images, and Europa Press News/Europa Press via Getty Images

Health care workers are at an especially high risk of catching the coronavirus because of their prolonged exposure to patients who have it. Making matters worse, the U.S. doesn't have enough of the protective equipment, like masks and gloves, that keeps them safe.

And yet these workers, with loved ones of their own, keep showing up at hospitals across the country, knowing that more Americans than they can possibly care for are depending on them.

Between the lines: The coronavirus is expected to create a demand for hospital care that far exceeds what the system was built to handle.

  • An overwhelmed health care system is not some abstract thing. It is a group of overwhelmed people — health care workers toiling around the clock with inadequate supplies to treat patients with a highly infectious disease.
  • Thousands of health care workers in China and Italy have fallen sick from the coronavirus, a warning sign for the U.S.

Two nurses in New York City died earlier this month, the New York Times reported last week, and health care workers said they were afraid more would follow.

  • “I am nagged by a constant fear that a patient who otherwise would have been saved, on any hour of any day before this pandemic, will die today,” Dhruv Khullar, a doctor in New York City, writes in the New Yorker.
  • “Years of honing our clinical instincts—observing patterns in disease pace and trajectory—suddenly seem insufficient and unreliable. We’re learning what to do, and when to do it, as we go,” Khullar adds.

Shortages of masks, gloves, face shields and other protective equipment have led providers to reuse supplies and improvise with makeshift alternatives.

  • Some hospitals have threatened to fire workers who raise the alarm about these shortages, Bloomberg reports.

Beyond their own health, workers have to worry about spreading a highly contagious disease to their loved ones, including members of vulnerable populations.

  • Some workers report physically distancing themselves from their immediate families — including spouses and children — by sleeping in separate rooms or living in different places altogether, per the NYT.

The bottom line: “Each morning, on the way to work, I wonder if I’ll be healthy enough to return tomorrow,” Khullar writes.

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