“Everyone is stressing about the testing, but that is not something people should be worrying about. There are thousands of people who aren’t symptomatic, who won’t need testing, but are still contagious and are spreading this. If you don’t have to go out, don’t. If you do, keep a safe distance and wash your hands and we will stop spreading this thing.”
Those are the words of an Albany Medical Center Hospital nurse, Lenore Ann Granich-Berghela, of Feura Bush, about COVID-19.
Supplies are short and nerves are frayed yet nurses and health care professionals across the nation are show up every day to a job that inherently makes them more susceptible to the virus that has turned the world upside down.
That job was made more difficult, Granich-Berghela said, because of a lack of foresight on behalf of hospital administrators and the government.
“We are unprepared and it is inexcusable. We had a dry run in 2014 with Ebola and everyone in the health care community knew this was going to happen. It wasn’t an ‘if’ but ‘when,’” she said. “I feel like the hospital industry is another way for people to make money rather than an essential resource for people and communities, which is the reason they are supposed to exist in the first place.”
The insidious nature of the virus, too, adds to the difficulties. A person who catches the flu, for example, can be contagious for a day before symptoms begin showing. With COVID-19, symptoms may not present themselves for up to five days, during that time a host who chooses to ignore social distancing protocols can circulate in the community and spread the virus to countless people who in turn can spread it and the cycle continues.
As of Monday, March 23, there are 122 confirmed cases in Albany County and 20,875 in New York state, including 157 deaths. Across the country, by Monday, the number of confirmed cases was rapidly approaching 40,000 with 467 deaths, and around the world the number topped 358,800 with more than 15,000 deaths.
It remains unclear when cases of the virus will peak in this country but Cuomo said it could take up to nine months to get through to the other side.
“The hospital administration is not doing enough to protect the workers. We have people in the community dropping N95 masks off to us, and I dropped off a box of N95 masks to the unit caring for the COVID patients,” Granich-Berghela said. “Protection for the staff is minimal so the chances of the staff getting sick is very high. It is not all Albany Med’s fault, you are seeing it at hospitals across the nation.”
Feelings of uncertainty and fear are compounded by the fact health care works can’t “social distance” and still care for patients. Couple that with an unprecedented pandemic that has not yet peaked, and things are a “little crazy,” she said.
“Everyone here is scared just like everyone else. We are human, and a lot of the nurses who are at high risk. There are nurses who are 65, and some who have underlying health issues and since we are more apt to be exposed to the virus, we are terrified of brining it home,” she said. “I know some nurses who are having their family members stay with other family members so they don’t run the risk exposing them. We are trying our best to stay positive, but we are scared too.”
In addition, while COVID has dominated the news and protocol at hospitals, there are still people who need hospital care.
“People are still going to have heart attacks, and people are still going to get into auto accidents and we’re still going in and putting ourselves at risk because that is what we are here to do,” she said. “I understand this is scary, and I understand people are upset but people do need to listen to the information that is out there. The young and healthy are able to survive the recovery phase of this, but a 60-year-old with an underlying health problem may not, so why should that 20-year-old run the risk of catching it and spreading it to their father or mother or uncle or grandparent who potentially will not survive this.
“We need to think of everyone and not just ourselves.”
The N95 mask is the most basic piece of personal protection equipment, and has become a symbol of a shortage of other essential equipment across the board. There are horror stories from around the country about nurses having to wash the masks for re-use, and Granich-Berghela said nurses at Albany Med are wearing one mask for an entire shift. Others are wearing masks that offer lesser protection than the N95, or doubling up with two different types of masks.
“We are running out of the N95 so can we wear the next level below that? Well sure. And then we will be wearing bandanas over our mouths,” she said. “If nothing else is available, I will put what I can over my face, but it’s just not going to work.”
When the pandemic first started getting headlines, people began hording masks and companies could not keep up with the demand. But, Granich-Berghela said they do little to prevent getting infected unless they are properly fitted — nurses are fitted for certain sizes of masks once a year — and are better suited to prevent someone already infected from spreading it.
By the fundamental principal of supply and demand, the masks were going for .85 cents each a month ago, Gov. Andrew Cuomo said, and are now going for $7.
“Many ventilators and masks and gowns are produced in China and now they need them themselves but also those industries are being shut down and not producing them so that creates a global shortage of the lifesaving and live protecting pieces of equipment we desperately need,” she said. “It boggles my mind the U.S. would outsource these critical items and have one source of supply coming into the country. A lot of our drugs to treat patients are produced in China. They are not produced here in the U.S. And when a global crisis hits our supply lines the U.S. people are at the mercy of other countries who are also suffering their own pandemic issues.”
President Donald Trump pledged over the weekend to increase the supply of masks and other equipment to hospitals.
Over the weekend Cuomo said as many as 80 percent of the population could be infected before it is done. The vast majority of people will recover at home from symptoms no more serious than the flu. For older people, and those who have underlying health issues, it is not so simple and many will require hospitalization. The goal of social distancing — staying at least six-foot away from other people — is to spread out the number of contaminations and spread out the number of people who need hospitalization to alleviate pressure on an already taxed health care system.
As of Monday, there are seven hospitalized in Albany County for COVID-19, but hospitals like Albany Med are scrambling to prepare for when the virus peaks and the expected sharp influx of patients who need to be segregated from the others in the hospital for traditional ailments like heart attacks and auto accidents.
Right now there are enough nurses to fill all the shifts — at Albany Med nurses work on the COVID ward on a voluntary basis — but Cuomo has asked retired nurses to sign up in something akin to the reserves, if there is a shortage. Albany County Executive Dan McCoy has asked school nurses to sign up and work at hospitals if they are needed.
If projections hold, more health care workers will be needed. Cuomo said there are 53,000 beds available statewide but the curve suggests a need for 110,000. He has asked hospitals to increase the number of new beds by at least 50 percent and is retrofitting facilities downstate as hospitals to increase the number of available beds.
“I think going forward, this needs to be a wakeup call for everyone. We can’t be reactionary we need to be proactive,” Granich-Berghela said. “People need to start thinking about and asking some tough questions like where are our taxpayers dollars going and why aren’t they spent in a way that isn’t for the benefit of the majority of New Yorkers and by extension of the US citizenry. A little bit of preparation would have saved us so much and now look at how far we have gone. It is effecting everyone’s 401K and small businesses may not recover. I really think people will pay more attention and more concerned with what their local and state and federal governments are doing.”