Eyewitness: A NYC Hospital During Covid-19

Main lobby of Woodhull Medical Center on April 20, 2021 with Keith Haring’s 1986 mural.

By Patrick Diaz

The COVID-19 pandemic has taken its toll on frontline workers in hospitals. Through my own personal experience and the experience of others you’ll get an intimate and detailed account of the pandemic inside a New York City hospital from those closest to it. Being there alongside other essential workers early on, I witnessed the horrors firsthand of what it was battling this pandemic. There is a physical and mental toll from seeing doctors deciding how to triage patients or who to help. Then, being tasked with disinfecting rooms of people who had recently died.

It was haunting walking by the mobile morgues and seeing orange body bags piled up inside them, it felt like an apocalyptic movie. I’d walk by patients’ rooms in the morning, seeing them connected to ventilators, and by the afternoon you’d see the mortician in a protective gown like a grim reaper coming to collect their remains. There were moments when terminal patients just wanted some sort of human interaction, and we could do nothing but comfort them from behind their doors. Hospital staff offered kind words and left heartwarming notes on their doors. It’s all that could be done from a safe distance as efforts to curb the spread continued.

In the beginning of the pandemic inside the hospitals was utter chaos but outside it felt all but abandoned. On March 22, 2020, everything nonessential was shut down due to the pandemic. There was no more school, no more shopping at malls, no public events, or gatherings and no more eating out. The community around Woodhull hospital became a lot more close-knit. The volunteer work was incredible to see, restaurants and food banks fed hospital employees for free daily. World Central Kitchen, a humanitarian organization that feeds people around the world during crisis’, fed the hospital staff daily for months with recipes developed by world renowned chefs. Taco salads were a big hit, colorful tortilla chips with season ground beef top with chipotle sauce, sour cream, shredded cheese, and vegetables another tasty meal was chicken over rice with grilled veggies and a delicious white sauce. The Red Cross donated supplies and groceries weekly. The New York City Health and Hospitals corporation was offering free mental health services to employees suffering from pandemic burnout. The goodwill of the human spirit really had shined through in an otherwise dark time for this city. A lot people stepped up and none more than those who chose to go to work in the face of uncertainty.

There are many folks not deemed essential who have found essential work to keep food on the table and the lights on. Many people found temporary work at Woodhull hospital like Roberto Avilan, who was a custodian at a New York City public school before quarantine orders were mandated. With schools closing, Avilan was out of work. He could’ve easily stayed home and collected unemployment, but with almost 30 million unemployment claims and 14 percent unemployment nationwide who knows when he would see any income.

Avilan found work through a temp agency specializing in janitorial services. The agency assigned him and other temporary employees to Woodhull in Brooklyn, which is one of the many severely understaffed city hospitals. “I was nervous after they closed the elementary school I worked at, as I’m sure you heard, they told us schools would be open by April 20 (2020),” said Avilan. “Obviously, that didn’t happen and the next day I started looking for work, I found a job in a week.” Avilan says he likes the work at the hospital, and he hopes the position will be permanent. His duties include disinfecting things people come in contact with or “high touch surfaces” like doorknobs, rails, elevators, counters, computers, and medical equipment. He’s also tasked with keeping trash cans empty.

Doctors and nurses are constantly donning and doffing personal protective equipment that could be contaminated from coming in contact with sick patients. His job is to remove that and other disposable medical equipment. The work may seem simple enough but there is great risk in contracting not only coronavirus but also other airborne and contact diseases. Touching dirty or used supplies or unclean surfaces can make you sick and require consistent handwashing hands or disinfecting them with hand sanitizer.

“The staff was helpful and welcoming from the start, it’s a great gig with good pay and union benefits,” said Avilan. “I’d like to stick around since these guys tell me they need all the help they can get.” Avilan said that working on the frontlines has shown him how people can unite during such unpredictable times. “This is a big hospital, and I don’t know how many people work here, definitely a few hundred, could be a thousand but one thing is for sure, they’ve supported each from housekeeping to doctors,” said Avilan. He’s just one of the many stories of people deciding to join the ranks of frontline workers and then there are those who’ve been there, who trained for this sort of thing.

Derek McCain, a veteran housekeeper with 20 years of experience at Woodhull, was profoundly affected by this pandemic. McCain fought his own battle with COVD-19. He contracted the disease and unfortunately lost a family member to it. A fellow hospital employee, his nephew, Herb “Shaq” Houchen, died on March 27, 2020, he was only 35 years old. A vigil was held on the one-year anniversary of his death by hospital employees. McCain says that one day he didn’t have the strength to get out of bed.

The recommended quarantine for people experiencing COVID-19 symptoms is two weeks. He tried to tough it out, but his condition only grew worse. He couldn’t walk his dogs. His friends and family couldn’t come see him. He had to leave his door unlocked so they could drop of food and medicine for him. McCain spent two weeks in an ICU unit. When they finally sent him home, McCain needed supplemental oxygen and was assigned a home health aide. McCain says that he still struggles with his breathing and sometimes must catch his breath when walking or working. He also says he has PTSD from the experience. He talks to supports groups and therapists.

Since pandemic began the hospital has dedicated a mental health/therapy wing where all employees are welcomed throughout the day where they can take some time to regroup. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), around 74 million essential workers are at high risk to contract coronavirus and 61% of them have underlying health issues that could amplify the severity of the virus. Not only are workers at risk to contract the virus on a daily bases but proper equipment to fight the pandemic was in high demand and short supply.

The pandemic brought a plethora of problems for those on the frontlines. In the beginning, the personal protective equipment (PPE) shortage was real, there wasn’t enough equipment for doctors, nurses, and other healthcare workers. Surgical masks were treated like gold. We had to ration our equipment. The equipment that was usually handed out with no regard was running low and was being signed out now. To replace things hand sanitizers and soaps you had to bring back the empty bottle, these practices were never in place before, supplies were scarce. The rationing of supplies and equipment has loosened up with more preparedness in recent months but there are still some restrictions.

Last year, I had to conserve N95 respirators mask for almost an entire week at a time. They’d have sweat stains and other residue on them by time they were replaced. A surgical mask is recommended to be replaced every three hours. Sometimes people wore them all day long, even now some still do. We were told every day to conserve what we have. Many of my co-workers began to protest this idea. Some began using their sick and annual leave just to get a break from being at the hospital. Many were afraid of possibly contracting COVID-19 or bring it home to their families. In a survey on Healio.com, a medical journal, conducted by the world’s largest union for registered nurses, National Nurses United, out of 9,200 nurses polled on their reuse of single usage PPE during the pandemic 7,452 said they reused PPE.

The practice of reusing PPE was a new concept and is officially called “reprocessing”. Fiercehealthcare.com, a website dedicated to healthcare news and policy says that “Normally, the acute health care community uses about 25 million N-95 masks a year. But so far this year the healthcare community has used more than 300 million.” In 2020, 100 healthcare systems around the country including New York City Health and Hospitals, had N-95 respirators on back order. There were many tactics we employed to “reprocessing” like retesting the breathability of masks. We conducted tests to make sure N95s could maintain their seal after several days of use. The test consists of being fitted for an N95 respirator and being sprayed with a mist of something that can only be described as sugar water, if you taste the mist through the mask, it’s no good, the seal didn’t hold. If you couldn’t taste it the seal held, and they were reused.

A survey of more than 21,000 nurses and found that 58 percent said that they were reusing single-use PPE such as N95 masks for five or more days, according Nursingworld.org, the official website for American Nurses Association. Sixty-eight percent said that the practice of reusing single-use PPE is required by their facilities’ policy. And 38 percent said they are still decontaminating single-use PPE for reuse. With new polices like “reprocessing” in place and having to ration single use PPE anyone could become anxious and paranoid about their safety.

The burnout due to working during the pandemic has caused plenty of people mental stress and panic. Aquim Villanueva has worked at Woodhull hospital for 14 years. He, like the other countless essential workers and first responders, has a unique pandemic experience. More than anything the pandemic has affected his mental health. Villanueva said that he had high levels of anxiety and paranoia due to working in a high-risk environment and he just needed a mental break to get away. During his time away, he felt safe at home but eventually when came became to work he “everything was triggering me again.” More than a year into the pandemic he says he still feels worried about working at the hospital because the things he saw and continues to see. He was recently received the vaccine and that does give him a piece of mind, but he still is apprehensive about being at work. He continues to take hygiene and cleanliness extremely seriously.

According to the CDC, 157 million adults in the US have been vaccinated. Many people, including hospital employees are still weary of the vaccine because of personal beliefs and feelings about the quality of it but Woodhull hospital continues to encourage all staff to get it. There are still many skeptics about the vaccine and the pandemic but if you want to know what’s really going on, Derek McCain invites you to “Come to the hospital if you think this is a conspiracy.”

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