I had a night off the other evening and I was walking in the neighborhood in SF looking for coffee, a nightshifter’s perpetual quest, when I heard the sounds of a party. People were yelling, drums banging, and I was completely confused. I have gotten used to the quiet in the streets, the feeling that I am alone in the world, even outside. I wondered, who is partying? in defiance of the distancing? I felt my anger rise at the disrespect, until I started hearing people shouting THANK YOU! and my heart shifted. I realized this is the 7pm cheer for frontline workers it was the first time I had actually heard it. I looked up at open windows with people in them clapping and cheering. I sat down on a nearby stoop and cried, letting the gratitude wash over me. I have been holding it together for weeks, I heard about the 7pm cheer, but hearing it in person was so encouraging.
These weeks have been exhausting. while the ER is not seeing as many patients as we usually do the patients we do see have been changing. There are very few traumas, no commuting= no car accidents, no bars open= no falls and fights, there are fewer of the traumas of violence that we usually see. These have been replaced with more people in respiratory distress, and more psych patients. The virus is moving through the homeless population as well. These patients come to us when there is nowhere else to go and they stay with us because the psych ward is full and the shelters won’t take patients until they have a negative test. There are special accommodations for the homeless that are positive called COVID hotels but they only take people in the daytime. So we hold psych patients and the homeless as a social service. This greatly reduces the number of beds available for the actual emergencies.
We have actually sent ER nurses up to the ICU every few hours to help with the turning of patients. The ICU is eerie, everyone in full PPE, talking to each other over the banana phones on speaker through the door to the patient room. We carefully follow the step by step instructions to turn the patient while minding all the IV tubing carrying life supporting drugs and nutrition, the breathing tube, the feeding tube, the urine catheter and on some patients, the continuous slow dialysis lines. The patients are almost all latino, male and in their 40’s and 50’s.
In SF the curve has been flattened, the hospital can handle the number of patients coming in because the public has followed the recommendation to stay home and distance from each other. It is working for now, slowing the rate of infection and death, and bought us some time to learn how to best treat patients, and how to best prevent the spread. It buys time to develop a vaccine, though we need a long time for that.
We are beginning to realize that this will be our normal for the months ahead until we come up with a vaccine or a lifesaving treatment. What looked at the beginning to be similar to the flu, has turned out to be so much more infectious and so much more deadly. What looked like a purely respiratory infection has turned out to have dangerous effects on the heart, kidneys, brain, and blood. It is not easy to predict who is most at risk, though we know the age and chronic health conditions do increase vulnerability, there are deaths among the seemingly young and healthy. We must stay the course until we learn more.