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Healthcare Workers in the US and Spain Assess the Coronavirus Crisis

U.S. Army Spc. Reagan Long, a horizontal construction engineer assigned to the 827th Engineer Company, 204th Engineering Battalion, 53rd Troop Command, New York Army National Guard, alongside Pfc. Naomi Velez, a horizontal construction engineer assigned to the 152nd Engineer Support Company, 42nd Infantry Division, register people at a COVID-19 Mobile Testing Center in Glenn Island Park, New Rochelle, Mar. 14, 2020. Members of the Army and Air National Guard from across several states have been activated under Operation COVID-19 to support federal, state and local efforts. (U.S. Army National Guard photo by Sgt. Amouris Coss)

“There is a massive shortage of respirators and ventilators, which are the only systems keeping patients with severe cases of COVID-19 alive.”

Healthcare professionals are on the front lines of the fight against Coronavirus and continue working in a dangerous and tense environment while everyone else is quarantined at home. Citizen Truth talked to healthcare workers in the United States and Spain to see what the situation is really like in the hospitals of these countries and to learn more about the virus and its spread from a medical perspective.

Walter, Patient Care Associate, Wexner Medical Center, Columbus, Ohio

The Coronavirus crisis is truly a novel situation, and in hospitals around the world experts are trying to quickly figure out the best way to address the numerous issues it has created with regards to the spread of infection and equipment shortages. Walter explained that, “They’ve been changing protocol on the fly. My shift is from 6:30 in the morning to 3 in the afternoon and when I got in yesterday they were doing things completely different than they were at around 9:30 or 10. Since then they’ve been taking everyone’s temperatures when they entered, everybody has to wash their hands when they enter the building, they ask you a bunch of questions…  People have been really upset about it but they’re just screening everyone to make sure they’re not bringing anything into the hospital.”

Given everyone’s confusion and fear, it should come as no surprise that the general mood in hospitals is one of anxiety and terror. Walter disclosed, “basically it’s just mass hysteria. Everyone’s freaking out. People are cancelling their appointments for non-necessary treatments and I understand. I would honestly say unless you absolutely have to don’t go to the hospital. Don’t come unless you’re dying.”

It’s important to remember that the Coronavirus pandemic is having severe consequences on the physical well-being of people who are not infected with Coronavirus but are afflicted with other medical conditions. Walter told Citizen truth that “one of my friend’s dads is recovering from lung cancer and currently has pneumonia so he should be at the hospital receiving treatment. However, because his immune system is compromised as a result of his chemotherapy treatments and his respiratory system is already not in good shape, he has been advised not to go to the hospital to receive his normal treatments until the situation calms down. That’s where it gets really scary is for people that are immune-compromised and stuff and don’t even have the antibodies to fight off the common cold.”

Walter is well aware of the need to prevent the spread of the virus but pointed out that many of the precautions that people have been taking don’t really make sense from a medical perspective. “People have been buying surgical masks, but all surgical masks do is help prevent spit and phlegm on people, they’re not designed to protect you. The virus goes right through that. The medical community needs these masks to protect people and we need to be sure that we have an ample supply. In the hospital we’ve had to hide surgical masks because people are stealing them.”

Walter also expressed concern about the problems with wildlife markets like the one in Wuhan where Coronavirus is thought to have originated. “They have these open-air meat markets where they just stack cages on top of each other. They’re putting all these different animals that haven’t been around each other and are carrying all these diseases in cages stacked on top of each other, and the ones on the bottom end up getting all sorts of different bodily fluids carrying all sorts of pathogens onto them. I just hope at the end of all this they end up regulating the wildlife markets in China a little more because those things operate with pretty much no regulation.”

Walter also works at a yoga studio and said that steps were being taken there to prevent the spread of infection. However, he cautioned that in terms of stopping the spread of the virus most of these things actually do very little from a medical perspective, and their chief benefit is making people feel as if they are being protected. “At the yoga studio they’ve revamped all the cleaning p[policies, we’re using a lot more disinfectant to clean the hot room and mats, everyone’s supposed to wash their hands when they get in the building, using warm water to wash things, just little stuff like that to make people feel more comfortable.”

This is a common theme, and Walter is worried that his health and the health of others is being put at risk in an effort to avoid scaring people. He disclosed that, “They’ve told hospital staff not to wear masks unless it’s absolutely necessary because it might incite public hysteria. So, it’s kind of like ‘Don’t protect yourself because it might freak people out.’”

Doctors are far from the only people wearing protective equipment that might incite feelings of fear or panic. Walter said that he’s seen some truly outlandish instances of “people coming in with their own respiratory protection if they paint or anything like that. I’ve had some patients come in with crazy masks and stuff that make them look like they’re getting ready for Chernobyl. I had a guy come in with a full hazmat suit the other day.”

Hospitals are also facing shortages of protective equipment like masks that ensure the well-being of patients and medical professionals. Walter said, “They’re issuing the staff those N95 masks, but those are disposable, and we’re given one of those in a brown paper bag to keep it in and told ‘This is your mask for now.’  Normally one of those would get used and thrown in the trash but we’ve only been given one to use for the foreseeable future and have been told ‘Take good care of it because this is your only mask.’ “

He also cautions that there’s only so much that can be done and at this point the most important thing is to attempt to even out the spread of the virus so that hospitals don’t get overwhelmed. “They’re taking the right steps but at the end of the day this is just going to be something that happens and people are going to get sick and all we can do is try and curtail the peak infection points so we don’t get to the point where Italy is where there isn’t room at hospitals. So, it could last for longer but hopefully with less intensity. Unless we control the spread of this virus, healthcare systems are going to get overwhelmed. There’s a good analogy to be made. In the past, the only place that the United States would buy the sterile plastic bags that hold the saline solution was in Puerto Rico, and then when that hurricane hit Puerto Rico there was a gigantic shortage of hospital saline. So, it’s just trying to make sure that things like that don’t happen we need to spread people out more, spread resources out more so people don’t all need to come to one area to get treatment.”

Walter also warned against moving around and travelling unless absolutely necessary, telling Citizen Truth, “It’s probably best to just stay put.”

Cristina, Nursing Student and Healthcare Worker, Hospital Clínico Universitario de Santiago, Santiago de Compostela, Galicia, Spain:

 Cristina and other healthcare workers in Spain are concerned about shortages of equipment and the generally capacity of the Spanish healthcare system to handle the surge in Coronavirus cases. She confessed, “I don’t think the Spanish healthcare system is properly equipped to deal with this crisis. It wasn’t before and it certainly isn’t now. There’s always been a shortage of certain important resources, mostly in infectious disease and internal medicine units, but now people are realizing it because their own health has been put at risk.”

However, despite her unease regarding the Spanish healthcare system’s capability to respond to the crisis, Cristina is interested “to see if the United States’ private healthcare system is effective in moments like this. As bad as the situation might get in Spain, I think it will be better than in the United States thanks to our public healthcare system. As a defender of public healthcare, I think that these moments of crisis show us how important it is. Healthcare should be a fundamental pillar of society, and its privatization is keeping many people from accessing a basic level of care.”

Relatives of hospital patients aren’t only stealing masks and other resources from hospitals in the United States, but also in Spain. Cristina explained that there’s a shortage of surgical masks and disinfectant gel partly due to the fact that relatives of patients have been taking these supplies. More importantly, she adds that “there is a massive shortage of respirators and ventilators, which are the only systems keeping patients with severe cases of COVID-19 alive.”

Cristina also told Citizen Truth that “there’s even shortages of more basic supplies such as food in many assisted living centers, nursing homes, and hospitals and many of these facilities have been unable to provide food for all of their patients. In some cases, healthcare professionals have used money from their own pockets to feed these people.”

She warns that “This type of virus has the potential to be highly contagious due to the fact that it is transmitted through droplets of saliva. Due to this, maintaining a safe distance from other people, avoiding large crowds, and washing your hands should be sufficient to avoid contracting the virus.”

Like Walter, Cristina is concerned that her and her co-workers’ safety is being put in jeopardy, which could in turn spread the disease and decrease the number of people available to care for sick patients.  She said, “What worries me most is the lack of protection available to most healthcare personnel in hospitals. There isn’t enough available personal protective equipment for all of the healthcare workers that are in contact with infected patients. In most hospitals they only have surgical masks and gloves, but in reality, they need FFP2 masks, lab coats, scrubs and gloves. Every day there are more reports of hospitals having to close because their employees have been infected. Although washing hands and other similar measures are important, it is essential to provide the necessary protective equipment to the people working on the front lines of this epidemic. If they don’t protect us, there won’t be anyone to take care of them.”

Cristina also worries that some people aren’t taking the situation seriously enough, putting themselves and others at risk. “I’m also concerned about the lack of understanding and compliance regarding the quarantine on the part of the elderly, the most at risk group. Here in Galicia it seems like most young people and adults are taking the confinement orders more seriously than senior citizens who are used to going out together in the afternoon to buy bread or the newspaper every day. All of us are giving up a lot for them, sacrificing our work, studies and obligations to not put them and danger, and I think the least they could do is not put themselves at risk.”

She also believes that the measures taken by the Spanish government were too late and not strict enough, explaining that “It wasn’t until there were soldiers in the streets that people started to comply with the quarantine orders. However, on a healthcare level, the organization and response on the part of the hospitals is spectacular given the resources available to them.”

Nonetheless, Cristina also believes that the way the government is approaching the situation is too strict in some ways and creating a variety of different problems. “Without a doubt, I don’t think that the right measures have been put in place on an educational and professional level. Regarding schools and universities, online classes are not sufficient and, in many cases, don’t function properly. The result is that many students like me are overloaded with unnecessary assignments and exams that are the only way they can evaluate us right now. With regards to business, though most people haven’t lost their jobs, I expect that without customers the situation could get very bad for business owners and for the economy of the country in general. I think the government should take steps to address this quickly or the consequences will be dire for many families. You can only paralyze the entire economy of a country for so long.”

Cristina is also bothered by the ways the media is representing the different problems related to Coronavirus and told Citizen Truth that, “I would say that the best advice I can give is not to panic, and to get information from other places than media reports which seem very sensationalist in my opinion. Regarding news and reports related to health, we should inform ourselves using official resources like medical pages and government statements, not television programs that exaggerate facts and statistics to concentrate on mortality rates and other attention-grabbing figures.

It’s important for everyone to stand together during this crisis, and Cristina advises everyone “think of other people in this difficult time. For example, by buying up everything at the grocery store people are leaving many people in need without food. The supermarkets will stay open, there’s no need to buy 120 rolls of toilet paper. By thinking of other people, I’m not only referring to society in general but also our families, for example buying groceries for older relatives and staying in contact with them.”





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