Hundreds gathered at the Harrisburg capitol building on April 20, flouting both advice from medical experts and orders from state government, in order to protest the state’s shutdown of all non-essential businesses due to the coronavirus pandemic.
But at the same time, blocks away, some health professionals in the Harrisburg area staged their own rally – albeit much smaller, and while attempting to remain an appropriate distance away from one another. They wore their scrubs along with protective masks, and held signs for passing motorists and potential protestors to see.
The message was simple: “Go home.”
“I’m watching the feed [from the anti-shutdown rally], and it makes me angry,” said Maureen Casey, registered nurse at Hershey Medical Center. “I mean, we’re in there risking our lives to care for these people. I have no doubt that when we get back to work, my coworkers and I, we’ll see many of these people come in. They’re not social distancing, they’re not wearing masks.”
Casey was not at the rally with her fellow medical professionals. She is a member of Hershey Medical Center’s special pathogens team, set up in 2015 to deal with an outbreak of Ebola and recently repurposed to treat patients with COVID-19. And she had treated those suffering from the disease for roughly three months until, on Good Friday, she was sent home from work after developing COVID-19-like symptoms herself. And she has remained on self-quarantine since.
“It’s been rough,” she said. “Staying in the house is no fun. I’ve had chills and sore throat and headache. Some symptoms [of COVID-19] – but not all the symptoms – which is why they kept me out.”
Casey will remain self-quarantined until she is cleared by a doctor to return to work. Once there, she will return to treating those patients, once again putting herself at risk for infection.
“We go in, we do what we have to do,” she said. “We need to take the precautions that keep us safe and hopefully get us home to our families safe, and not bring [an infection] home to our families, whatever we go in and take care of with patients. This is no different. Well, it kind of is, because we don’t have enough of the proper equipment.”
And those protesting at the capitol building, Casey said, are only making her job harder, and creating more danger for others to be infected.
“The constitution says we have the right to assemble and protest, and I completely agree with that,” she said. “But let’s be smart about it. You want the economy open? This is not the way to do it. Argue it, but take the precautions. Though it kind of makes you hypocritical as well to take the precautions and be standing out there.”
And Casey fears she will end up seeing these people again all too soon – but next time, it will be because they have contracted the virus. And it will have been entirely preventable.
“It just angers me,” she said. “If I don’t see someone from this rally, will I see one of their family members? Somebody who’s immunocompromised? Their grandmother, their mother, in our unit with COVID that needs to be cared for? Potentially intubated? It’s like the flu vaccine – it’s not about you, it’s about everyone else in your family in your life, that you care about, to protect them. We don’t have a vaccine for this. They’re going to go home, they’re not going to think about it. And if someone in their family gets sick, they’re going to blame it on somebody else.”
Her advice to those protesting is simple: “Stay home. I don’t want to see them in my ICU. I don’t want to see them in my emergency room doorstep.”
And to the unfortunately common refrain shared by many – that the disease isn’t that dangerous for healthy people, and often compared dismissively to the flu – Casey had another dire warning.
“It is not the flu,” she said. “I’ve had the flu, I know how I’ve felt when I’ve had the flu. I’ve seen it. These people are not that way. Given everything, they’d rather have the flu than this. The flu wracks your body, aches and pains. This is breathing, this is their ability to breathe. When they’re having a hard time breathing, when they can’t stop coughing, it’s just … you feel helpless. There is nothing we can do for them.”
That is, she said, there is not many treatment options until and unless the symptoms worsen. And at that point, the only treatment option is attaching the patient to a ventilator.
“It’s scary,” Casey said. “If you’ve never seen what happens with these patients, then you can’t understand it. You don’t know what it’s like until you’ve seen a patient trying to fight for their breath. To look into your eyes and hear them say ‘don’t let me die,’ and those are their last words before they get intubated. That’s not what anybody should have to experience. There’s a lot of nurses, I’m sure, that are going to suffer from PTSD when this is over, from that experience.”
At her last check, Casey said, there were still roughly 20 patients at Hershey Medical Center being treated for COVID-19. But she also warned that they were anticipating an increase in cases due to the growing spread among nursing homes and other congregate housing – cases among the elderly and immunocompromised who are more likely to develop deadly complications, and will have more urgent need for the limited number of ventilators available.
Casey said she understands that many protestors may be struggling with financial burdens. But even so, her advice is the same: “Go home.”
“I feel for them,” she said. “It’s frustrating for me to not be able to go to work. I can appreciate it from their standpoint; not being able to go to work, not being able to pay their bills. It’s a difficult situation to be in. But if you’re dead, you don’t have to worry about your bills. I mean, that to me is the difference. That’s what it’s about.”
She agreed that both federal and state governments needed to take more action to support the public during this time of crisis, for both unemployment compensation and life-sustaining revenue as well as more support for hospitals and their staff – particularly in providing personal protective equipment (PPE) for those treating patients. The $1,200 federal aid, she said, may not ben enough for some households to cover even a single month’s rent or mortgage, let alone provide groceries.
But until additional aid arrived, she said, large gatherings can and will make the problem worse. She cited similar conditions from 1918, when the Spanish Flu seemed to abate, only for people to be hit with a second wave of infections even worse than the first due to letting down their guard.
For those in a position to help, Casey said, she recommended supporting local restaurants, some of whom – such as Fenicci’s of Hershey – are hosting fundraisers or donating meals to hospital staff.
Alternately, she said, if you know a health care professional, she suggested preparing them a meal to leave at their door that they can enjoy after a shift.
But the simplest thing you can do, she said, is exactly what medical authorities and government officials have been saying all along.
“People need to stay home,” she repeated. “They don’t need to stay in their house, they can go outside. The weather is getting nicer. Please, go outside. Work on your yards, walk around. But do the social distancing and just hang on for the time being. Pennsylvania has done a very good job of flattening the curve from the data that we’ve seen. But [the protest] is not going to help.”
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