Anna, a surgical nurse from Texas, knew the pandemic was deadly serious the moment she walked into Coney Island Hospital in New York City and saw a recovery room transformed into a makeshift ICU, lined with ventilated patients. For three weeks, she worked at the front lines of the U.S. coronavirus outbreak, watching morgues spring up in the parking lot outside her hospital and paying witness as families said their final goodbyes over iPads.
When she returned from that stint to her hometown of Lubbock in mid-May, she was horrified to see people crowded into bars and restaurants, most of them without face masks.
“They think I’m ridiculous. They don’t believe it,” she said of those she tried to warn about the virus. “[But] I saw it kill young people. Old people, sick people, healthy people.”
“It’s just been frustrating to have people tell me I’m overreacting, that this is not New York,” she added. “And I’m like, you know, we’re getting there.”
As the coronavirus spreads to new hot spots, health-care workers in those states are increasingly frustrated at what they see as a largely avoidable second surge. At least a dozen states have seen an increase in hospitalizations since Memorial Day; seven saw record highs last week. For health-care workers in the thick of the fight, it can feel like the country is doomed to repeat the mistakes of months past.
“Those of us who are at the front lines have walked up and down the ICU, and we’ve put on PPE and we’ve felt that very intense weight of COVID as health-care workers,” said Ellen Eaton, an infectious disease specialist at the University of Alabama Hospital. “I think that is totally lost on the rest of our community.”
The pandemic’s geography has shifted in recent weeks, spreading outward from the coasts to wreak havoc in the South and Southwest. Arkansas, California, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Texas all saw record hospitalization highs last week, according to The Washington Post, and 33 states saw an increase in the rolling average of new cases. In many of these states, governors pushed to reopen businesses quickly and are now having to reinstitute some of their restrictions.
Ray Baule, a neurosurgeon from North Carolina, said he doesn’t understand the rush to return to business as usual. Baule worked for three weeks at Elmhurst Hospital in New York City—one of the first real epicenters of the virus—and described the hospital there as “like a war zone.” But another shock awaited him at the grocery store back home in Rocky Mount, where he estimated less than half of all shoppers—and even some employees—weren’t wearing masks.
“I was appalled, really, that people weren’t taking things more seriously,” he said. “People were dying right and left where I was, and people did not understand the severity—still don’t, to be frank."
Anna, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation from her current employer, said she was more disturbed by the attitude at her hometown hospital. Because her job requires frequent intubations and extubations, which are a known risk for spreading disease, she asked for an N95 mask as soon as she returned to work in Lubbock. But, she says, the infection control nurse in charge refused, telling her, “I know you saw what you saw, but this is not New York.”
As cases started to rise in her area, Anna said, her hospital started giving out one-size-fits-all masks for employees to wear. From her experience in New York, she knew this was not sufficient to spread infection but was too tired to keep fighting it. “I’ve tried arguing with people and it’s just pointless,” she said.
Christina Propst, a pediatrician in Houston, Texas, watched the pandemic ravage the East Coast with bated breath. Propst grew up in New Jersey and still has family in the area, and was relieved when the numbers there started to fall dramatically. But in the last three weeks, she said, she’s watched the number of coronavirus patients at her own outpatient clinic slowly grow.
“I think what happened was we had a little blip, and then things got a little better,” she said. “And when things got a little better, people got a false sense of security. They got a little complacent.”
Texas is one of the fastest-growing hot spots in the country, with nearly 6,000 hospitalizations as of Monday. A 16-day streak of record hospitalization numbers ended Sunday, but hospitals are still concerned about being overwhelmed. Gov. Greg Abbott was one of the first to start reopening his state in April, and only recently began walking that back through a series of executive orders.
Propst said Abbott deserves much of the blame for the lax adherence to protocol that led to rising caseloads. Officials in Houston were swift to enact safety measures, she said, “but when you have the state and federal government telling people a very different message, people hear what they want to hear.”
Texas is not alone in putting the brakes on reopening. Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey ordered bars, movie theaters, gyms and water parks closed this week, while Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has ordered bars not to serve alcohol. Oregon and Kansas also implemented mask mandates for anyone out in public this week.
But in Alabama, where cases are steadily increasing Gov. Kay Ivey said Tuesday that she would not reimpose the restrictions that expired in May, claiming they are "not sustainable in the long run." The state’s COVID-positive test rate is currently hovering around 15 percent, according to the Montgomery Advertiser, and its seven-day average of cases has more than tripled from the beginning of the month.
Eaton, the infectious disease specialist, said it might take something like the situation in New York to make her fellow Alabamans wake up to the realities of the virus.
In the meantime, she said, health-care workers are growing weary of constantly sounding the alarm.
“We’re just very disillusioned, we’re tired, we’re exhausted,” she said. “And we drive home and see business as usual happening in our community, knowing that that person who's walking into a store without a mask, or that gathering [taking place], is going to lead to more work for us, more time away from our families."
She added, “It’s been a long season for us, and frankly I don’t see an end in sight.”