A year ago, no one knew what ‘COVID’ was. But today it’s gone viral---in every sense of the word. Last November 17th, the South China Morning Post reported the first case of the virus in a 55-year-old man. Since then, nearly 54 million people worldwide have been infected with the virus, with more than 1.5 million dying from it. There has been nothing like it since 1918’s ‘Great Influenza.’
“To do our jobs,” said Denver paramedic Brent Stevenson, “we have had to implement new policies and processes to ensure our people are wearing the appropriate protective gear.” Stevenson, Assistant Chief of Denver Health and Hospital’s Paramedic Division, says COVID-19 is now the first check-off when answering a call. No call is answered without personal protective equipment, PPE. “It’s not like responding to a shooting or heart attack,” said Stevenson. “This was something we hadn’t dealt with before.”
But, as in war---and this is a war, just a different kind---there is no substitute for battlefield experience. “We know a little more now than we did in March,” said Stevenson. “We have become used to operating with added layers of PPE…we have learned to prepare for the worst.”
It’s not only paramedics whose routine has changed in the era of COVID. Cops, firefighters, and hospital workers have all had to adapt to the virus to avoid a potentially deadly exposure. On just one day, Friday, November 13th, 181,000 new cases of COVID-19 were reported in the U.S. Since the first U.S. case was documented, COVID-19 has infected more than 11 million Americans causing nearly 250,000 deaths.
All police agencies are feeling the effects of the virus as well. “Our encounters with the public have changed,” said Aurora Police spokesperson C.K. McCoy. Masks and PPE are now as much a part of an officer’s gear as handcuffs or weapons. Dispatchers, said McCoy, routinely ask Covid screening questions before sending officers on a call. Social distancing is mandatory “when in contact with members of the public.” To date, nearly 40 “sworn officers and staff” have tested positive for the virus.
Unknown a year ago, the disease today shadows every emergency care facility in the country. COVID-19 has made nearly everything else secondary. “The work we were doing daily has kind of gotten put on the back burner as we deal with the pandemic,” said Dr. David Wyles, Chief of Infectious Disease at Denver Health and Hospitals. “Now, really, everybody in infectious disease has had to become an expert in COVID,” he said.
But the weight of COVID doesn’t just land on cops, paramedics, and healthcare workers, said Wyles. “Family life has gotten a lot harder,” he lamented. At home, parents have had to juggle routines. “You have to figure out things between working parents to take care of homelife.”
The origins of COVID have been ostensibly tracked to one of China’s ‘wet markets,’ places where both live and dead animals are sold as food. One theory is that the virus hopped from one animal to another. Researchers have suspected that the pangolin, an animal similar to an armadillo, may have passed it on to bats who, in turn, infected humans. Another theory is that the virus was manufactured in a Chinese laboratory. It’s a popular theory among conspiratorialists but holds little credibility.
But COVID’s impact on the world is a reality and illustrated in graphic, real-time images shown on nightly newscasts last spring. New York, America’s ground-zero last spring for the illness and Italy were both overwhelmed with patients. The images, while precursors to what could happen anywhere, are playing out to both similar and lesser degrees in a number of places in America right now. El Paso, Texas, for example, is now going through an extreme outbreak in both infections and fatalities.
New York and Italy were previews of what could happen here. While both were nightmarish in their own way, they also provided a blueprint for healthcare workers on how best to react. “We have had the luxury of ramping up,” said Wyles. “We didn’t take our eye off the possibility of having a second surge.”
Denver Health was able to procure sufficient PPE for its staff. “We had a great group of planners,” he said. The infrastructure for a mass infection was created in weeks. DHH planned “for the worst case scenario…opening wings that had been closed or transforming new wings.”
But Denver is a medical hub center. Wyles said outlying medical facilities do not have the same resources. In remote locations, he said, there was a lack or complete absence of pulmonary critical care. “In some places they don’t even have pulmonologists,” a physician who specializes in the respiratory system.
Both Stevenson and Wyles have a keen empathy for what New York and Italian healthcare workers experienced last spring. It wasn’t just treating those infected, they say. It also took a personal toll on their co-workers.
“We have become used to cheering each other up and giving each other pep talks,” said Stevenson. Beyond that, he gives great credit to the community that saw what they were going through. He says thank-you cards and meals became regular arrivals at the paramedic division. “It’s been taxing, emotionally and physically on a lot of people.”
Wyles said it wasn’t just the threat of infection he worried about. “Some people were really energized and went full-force. But then you get burnout. You really have to give people time to recharge.”
COVID-19 has been an education for healthcare workers. “There is no way to read about it or write about it,” said Wyles. “You have to be there.”