When I first heard that my state is planning to reopen soon, I was shocked. I was busily seeing patients that day when I received an alert on my phone. Perplexed and stunned, I couldn’t help but to stop what I was doing, reached for some hand sanitizer, so that I could actually pick up and use my phone, and then I re-read the message.
As a physician, I personally have been risking my life and potential livelihood with other health care workers and support staff every day to take care of patients with COVID-19. I have been wondering and worrying that at any moment I could be infected and could unknowingly spread it to my patients, friends, or family. I could even get sick and become a burden to my own family. For now, I have been risking my safety to offer what support I can to patients who can’t physically see or touch their family members. I lend my personal phone so that patients can FaceTime and at least see the loved ones that they have been separated from during their prolonged hospitalizations. We as health care workers have now become their family and support system.
The federal government and leading medical organizations like the American College of Physicians have previously established metrics that recommend when it might be safe to open states like mine during a pandemic like this. They identify core benchmarks like a downward trajectory of documented cases within a 14-day period, a robust testing program in place for at-risk healthcare workers, including emerging antibody testing, enough PPE for all healthcare workers, the ability to trace contacts of COVID-19 positive results and a sufficient healthcare workforce and health system capacity to treat patients with the virus if such a dramatic surge in need occurs.
We currently do not meet any of these benchmarks.
Georgia is still on an uptick with an increasing number of new cases of COVID-19 announced daily by our health department. Reopening is a gamble. There is a lag time between when people are infected and their subsequent need for hospitalization.
We know that one of the main ways to mitigate the spread of this virus is social distancing. So how can our patients social distance in communal spaces like the barbershop, bowling alley, or tattoo parlor? Social distancing, air ventilation, the ability to screen patrons before entering a business are just a few of the many challenges businesses must address before being safely able to reopen.
Daily when I leave the hospital, I have to change out of my scrubs before I can enter my vehicle and drive home, and I do not engage with my family until I have fully decontaminated myself.
What was the purpose of all of this to simply reopen before any metrics have been safely met?
I support a strong economy, but in order to have a strong, healthy economy, we need strong, healthy communities. Reopening makes this harder, if not impossible—by increasing risks to our citizens and health care workers. In fact, reopening now is like not finishing your antibiotics because you are finally starting to feel better.
I understand that our leaders have to make a great deal of difficult calls. As physicians, we understand that well, but reopening our state is not one of them.
Tracey L. Henry is an internal medicine physician.
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