On March 14, the American College of Emergency Physicians announced that two emergency room doctors were in critical condition with COVID-19. One of the physicians, based in Washington state, is only in his 40s. The other doctor, in his 70s, was in charge of emergency preparedness for his hospital in New Jersey.
On Thursday, it was reported that two emergency medicine doctors at a hospital in Oak Park, Ill., had tested positive for the coronavirus and were quarantined at home. One of the doctors may have had contact with patients and colleagues before the infection was detected.
As an emergency medicine physician myself, I was dismayed and saddened by this news. Emergency room doctors are on the front lines of this pandemic, and we all know that our job comes with inherent risks. We accept those risks, and we carry on providing necessary, lifesaving care in the face of this public health emergency.
Yet, on the same day that I was reading about my colleagues fighting for their lives, I also read about bars in Boston crowded with patrons and police in New Orleans having to clear people out of Bourbon Street. Even after public health authorities put out stringent social distancing guidelines, some Florida beaches were still packed last week with college students on spring break.
I have a message for all the people who disregard social distancing recommendations: This behavior is wholly unacceptable during a global pandemic. You, the public, have been asked to stay home for the sake of the elderly and medically vulnerable.
Now I’m asking you to stay home for your health care workers, too. Every person who becomes infected is another person that my colleagues and I will be called upon to treat. Every time we interact with an infected patient, our own risk of contracting the virus increases.
Even if we only suffer mild symptoms, we will be forced to isolate ourselves so that we do not pass the virus to our patients. Losing medical providers at this crucial moment is something that our health care system simply cannot afford to do.
Every time you go out unnecessarily, you increase the chances of spreading the virus to others or acquiring it yourself. No, you cannot go out even if you are feeling perfectly healthy; you can transmit the disease before you begin to show signs of infection. By the time you’re sick, you may have already infected many others.
There are ominous signs that the number of COVID-19 patients could overwhelm the capacity of the medical system. If more health care providers become infected and need to stay home, we may come to a point where we simply do not have enough staff to care for patients. Failing to stay out of public areas and six feet away from others will turn this alarming possibility into grim reality.
On behalf of America’s health care workers, I implore you to stay home. Those of us in the health care field are facing a situation unlike anything seen in over a century. Make no mistake: We will be stretched to our breaking point.
There are no firm numbers yet of how many health care workers, including emergency medicine doctors, have become infected with the coronavirus. But we will certainly see growing numbers made ill as the trajectory of the disease soars.
The only way we stay ahead of this pandemic is to limit the number of new coronavirus cases. By staying home, you are helping to limit the disease’s spread. Every case that you prevent is one less opportunity for me to get infected while providing care to critically ill patients.
Keeping as many health care workers as possible on the job will be crucial in the coming months and, without exaggeration, may be the difference between life and death for some individuals. So please: Stay home. For us.