I work for an Urgent Care chain in Brooklyn. Winter time is always our busiest season and the early months of 2020 were no exception. The flu season of 2019-2020 hit earlier than usual and January was an exceptionally busy month. I was ready for a break.
Around this time we began hearing rumblings on the news about a new respiratory virus circulating through the city of Wuhan in Hubei province, China. We watched TV images of figures in biohazard suits busily scurrying around. This virus was supposedly related to the SARS outbreak that hit many parts of Asia in 2003.
A quick internet search about the original SARS outbreak revealed data that did not appear to be very severe, with the worldwide death toll being less than 800. Any random flu season in the US far exceeds this without nearly the same panic and disruption. My wife, who was living in Taiwan at the time, can personally attest to the level of anxiety and fear surrounding this event.
Determined not to be a harbinger of panic, I settled into my familiar role of the reassuring doctor. Patient visits throughout the day are normally filled with anxiety, and I felt that it was my job to lessen this anxiety. I thought that my attitude was well justified. I had worked through previous viral panics. The 2014 Ebola outbreak resulted in a total of 11 cases within the US. The 2016 outbreak of Zika virus was only a concern to a relatively small number of pregnant women. I felt that it was my role to counteract the fear stemmed by these events, to remind people to keep things in perspective.
But the chatter about this new outbreak in China did not subside. Coronavirus Disease 2019, as it came to be called, was now making headlines. We learned that the first confirmed case was identified on December 1, 2019 and there was speculation that the Chinese government had taken steps to limit information about the virus from getting out, including its potential for human to human spread. Ironically in late November 2019, my wife and I visited China for vacation, though we were not anywhere near Hubei province. It was a wonderful trip and, in retrospect, may have just been the calm before the storm.
By February, the virus had escaped the borders of the China. It was spreading through Iran, and then Northern Italy. All of a sudden it was in the U.S, in Washington state, then California. Back at work it had seemed that the flu season was coming to a most welcome end. February seemed almost lighter than usual. But, people were asking questions. The headlines had resonated with patients in the clinic. Patients began worrying that their mild respiratory or febrile illness may be caused by the coronavirus. I had no way to give them an objective answer. For weeks I relished in reassuring patient after patient that there had not been a confirmed case in the New York metro area.
And then, on March 1st, a woman who had recently traveled to Iran, was confirmed to have coronavirus after developing respiratory symptoms. Soon after, a cluster of infections was identified in Westchester county, just north of the city, with a synagogue being its epicenter. A "containment zone" was established inside New Rochelle, a commuter town with a direct rail connection to Grand Central Terminal in Midtown, Manhattan, near where my wife and I lived.
The atmosphere started to change. Masks started to become commonplace, despite the insistence of various government entities that they were not necessary for the general public. Companies began advising their employees to work remotely. Many conferences and conventions were cancelled.
Amazingly, a conference that I attended in mid March in Colorado did take place as scheduled. The conference was quite enjoyable but last minute closure of the region’s ski resorts left us scrambling to catch a flight home earlier than expected. When we returned to New York, most of the remaining theaters and cultural institutions announced their closures. Two days later, all bars and restaurants were forced to close, despite assurances from the mayor just the prior week that this would not happen. These events were unprecedented and because of their devastating economic effects I could not imagine they would last more than a few weeks, at most.
The reasoning presented by government officials was that the closures were needed to “flatten the curve.” The goal was to avoid a massive spike in cases during a short period of time. They were worried that such an event would overwhelm hospital and ICU capacity. We were told that this was happening in Northern Italy at the time, resulting in doctors needing to ration care, needing to pick and choose who lives and dies. Such a scenario had to be avoided at all costs.
Back at work, things also took a different direction. All staff were suddenly instructed to wear protective gowns and N95 masks for the duration of the shift. Several of my colleagues were forced into a 14 quarantine after coming into contact with patients presenting with seemingly mild respiratory symptoms. These patients did not raise any suspicion for high risk illness but were subsequently confirmed positive for Coronavirus.The staff were not wearing any kind of PPE for these encounters.
During the following shifts I had encountered a number of patients presenting with pneumonia. This was not uncommon during the late winter month of March. At this time our testing capability for coronavirus was quite limited, we were told we could only perform a handful of tests per day. We were given testing criteria, but these were highly subject to interpretation. Nevertheless, I performed tests on the cases that I thought were suspicious.
A colleague of mine was noticing a similar trend. One day, she anxiously contacted me. Following up on some patients from a previous shift, she had noticed that, not just one or two, but multiple patients from a single shift, who were given COVID tests were coming back positive. I followed up as well and confirmed the same trend among my patients. It was irrefutable now, the beast had reached our shores.
What happened next is widely known. The occasional pneumonia cases increased in frequency to the point where almost all the patients in a single shift presented with the same thing.
While I did not work in the high acuity setting of the hospital, from where most of the horror stories were emanating, my experience at the urgent care nevertheless made it clear that we were not living in normal times. Every shift included multiple ambulance calls and emergent hospital transfers. Our sites were equipped with oxygen tanks. Previously they were used only in rare emergencies, now they were being used every day. In fact at one point we were instructed to try to conserve the tanks and instead use the lesser powered oxygen concentrators in non-critical cases. I found this hard to comprehend because any patient requiring supplemental oxygen in our office is a critical case. It got worse, there were reports of at least two patients having died while still in our offices waiting for EMS to arrive.
One particularly challenging situation that I remember was of a patient who I felt that, for multiple reasons, for heading towards a poor outcome. EMS was called, she was evaluated by the medics but then refused by them for not being sick enough. I could never have imagined such a scenario.
My shifts developed a strange routine. Almost every patient had the same presentation, some more severe than others. Each needed a chest x-ray and most of the x-rays appeared interchangeable. On x-ray most typical pneumonias appear as a thick consolidation in one area of the lungs. With Coronavirus, there are faint cloudy patches spanning both lungs. I felt like the treatment I was able to provide was very limited. Most patients were prescribed antibiotics, which is standard of care for bacterial pneumonia. But deep down I was doubtful about whether this would do much to treat this specific infection which we knew to be secondary to a virus. I was able to recommend breathing exercises and laying in the prone position, but that was about it. Many experimental treatments were being tried but one would have to be sick enough to be hospitalized to receive one of those. In the outpatient setting standard of care was mostly limited to a wish and a prayer hoping that one’s condition would not deteriorate.
One of the most difficult things I had to deal with was deciding who would be eligible for a test. Testing capacity continued to be very limited for quite some time and I had access to the same handful of tests per day as when the crisis started. The difference now was that almost every patient not only met criteria for a test but likely had coronavirus. In fact coronavirus was so widespread at this time that performing a test in the face of an obvious clinical presentation could lead to a false negative result, further clouding the picture. My explanation of limited testing and presumed diagnosis was deeply unsatisfactory for many patients who wanted something objective. I was left with a decision to make. Should I reserve a test for the high risk patient with an obvious presentation, or for the less high risk patient with an unclear diagnoses for whom a test can change management? Many times I would simply use up all the available tests toward the beginning of the shift and subsequently explain to the later patients that no more tests were available, thereby absolving myself of needing to make a decision.
A notable trend that I noticed was the discrepancy between different neighborhoods. I worked in a variety of different settings. The busiest shifts took place within the lower socioeconomic immigrant and working class communities. Countless primary care and specialist offices closed their doors and people were left with limited options, either us or the hospital emergency room. The situation was quite different in the higher socioeconomic white collar and gentrified communities. The people here had the option to skip town to their vacation homes or to sequester at home and work remotely, and maybe consult a doctor via tele heath if necessary. In such neighborhoods the volume dropped so rapidly that multiple previously busy sites temporarily closed.
And then, at some point in early May, the cases just stopped. The typical coronavirus presentation which I personally saw again and again, as of the time of this piece, I have not seen a single case in months. It was around this time that testing capacity within the region increased dramatically. The citizenry was encouraged to get tested regularly. Ironically, the opposite problem had later developed. So many tests were performed that the labs become unable to handle the volume and wait times for results stretched to unacceptable levels. A small percentage of these tests continues to come back positive, well under 1% when I last checked, but it was a massive drop from the peak seen in April. In the region, hospitalization and death rates dropped accordingly. The numbers have continued to decrease despite multiple industries reopening.
Despite all of this, this episode wounded the New York region in a way that will take a long time to recover from. The level of anxiety is palpable. There is a harmful level of suspicion of fellow citizens. Countless small businesses has already closed, with restaurants and bars being hit especially hard. Many people were laid off from their jobs
In normal times the city has its usual rhythm. It’s streets being filled with tourists, shoppers, restaurant and theater goers. This pace of life has not yet returned. I feel that this was a major factor in the unrest seen during the month of June which saw multiple instances of looting in high profile business districts. Looting cannot take place under normal circumstances if there are countless people on the streets going about their business.
At the time of this writing, we are on the verge of the fall season and the eventual start of the usual seasonal respiratory infections. Museums have just been allowed to reopen and restaurants have also returned but only for outdoor dining. Schools are on the verge of reopening, at limited capacity at best. I get the sense that the fate of the remaining, still shuttered industries will be dependent on the result of the school reopening. The continued decline of Coronavirus in the region gives me a sense of optimism that things will be allowed to return to normal. But, I will be the first one to admit if I am wrong. I have to be, I am still working on the front lines. We are approaching a turning point in history where things can go one way or the other. Only time will tell.