The following was written by staff writer Atul Gawande and originally posted to The New Yorker website on March 21.
The message is getting out: #StayHome. In this early phase of the coronavirus pandemic, with undetected cases accelerating transmission even as testing ramps up, that is critical. But there are many people whom the country needs to keep going into work—grocery cashiers, first responders, factory workers for critical businesses. Most obviously, we need health-care workers to care for the sick, even though their jobs carry the greatest risk of exposure. How do we keep them seeing patients rather than becoming patients?
In the index outbreak in Wuhan, thirteen hundred health-care workers became infected; their likelihood of infection was more than three times as high as the general population. When they went back home to their families, they became prime vectors of transmission. The city began to run out of doctors and nurses. Forty-two thousand more had to be brought in from elsewhere to treat the sick. Luckily, methods were found that protected all the new health-care workers: none—zero—were infected.
But those methods were Draconian. As the city was locked down and cut off from outside visitors, health-care workers seeing at-risk patients were housed away from their families. They wore full-body protective gear, including goggles, complete head coverings, N95 particle-filtering masks, and hazmat-style suits. Could we do that here? Not a chance. Health-care facilities don’t remotely have the supplies that would allow staff members to see every patient with all that gear on. In Massachusetts, where I practice surgery, the virus is circulating in at least eleven of our fourteen counties, and cases are climbing rapidly. So what happens if you are exposed to a coronavirus patient and you don’t have the ability to go full Wuhan? My hospital system, Partners HealthCare, has already sent more than a hundred staff members home for fourteen days of self-quarantine because they were exposed to the coronavirus without complete protection. If we had to quarantine every health-care worker who might have come into contact with a covid-19 patient, we’d soon have no health-care workers left.
Read the rest of this article at The New Yorker Website.