This is the continuation of a series of journal entries depicting what it’s like to be a part of the COVID pandemic from the medicine resident perspective.
Monday, April 6th
Aside from the very real concerns over lack of personal protective equipment (PPE), ICU beds, and ventilators, I believe that the biggest cause for anxiety among healthcare professionals is not having answers. Traditionally, the public has turned to physicians during public health scares as they purportedly know how to approach all ailments. This virus is demonstrating that given all of our progress in the medical field from state-of-the-art imaging modalities to treatments utilizing personal genetic properties, we still can’t answer many basic questions about this new disease.
Philadelphia has a geographic advantage over many other regions in relation to the viral spread. We have an up-close view of the damage that the virus has wrought in New York without having nearly the number of cases or hospital burden at this time. The delay it takes for the virus to move westward globally and down I-95 not only allows us to stock up on PPE, prepare the hospitals, and practice social distancing, it also gives us the opportunity to analyze the studies that have come out of places like China and Italy. Although hospital beds in Philadelphia are now filling up with COVID-19 patients, it’s the barrage of images in the media of trashbag-wearing nurses, overflooded hallways and pleas from staff urging more supplies or more assistance that make this even more terrifying. The answers to our questions will come, but during the quarantine when each day feels like a week, data collection isn’t necessarily the issue — interpreting the data is.
As the pandemic ramps up in our region, the ever-present fear of not knowing which patients entering the hospital with upper respiratory infection symptoms are positive is anxiety-producing, not only because these patients can become sick quickly, but because it’s easy to let your guard down. When you know your patient is infected you know to be extra cautious. Also, determining whom to test prior to admission, given the tests’ continued scarcity, remains an issue, even as our own institutions’ guidelines continuously evolve.
In an ideal world we’d screen everyone and it would be an accurate test. However, right now we cannot screen everyone and we know the test has a high rate of false-negatives. Let’s say we do identify a COVID-19 patient through testing but who doesn’t require hospitalization. Our guideline for duration of self-isolation is just a recommendation as we simply don’t know if they are still infectious post-isolation. We can’t even tell patients that tested positive whether or not they are susceptible to getting re-infected, and if it will return in autumn; we can only posit given what we know about other viruses in these situations. Lastly, we don’t even have a proven treatment plan, only what experts surmise is the best approach given the information we have. Hydroxychloroquine, among many other proposed treatments, is still in the nascent stages of evaluation but the public wants answers quickly. This is not typically how the peer-review process works in academia as it often takes months to years to evaluate therapies. In this case public expectations need to be grounded to a reality in which even when expedited, implementation of new practices moves at a seemingly-glacial pace.
Residents get daily updates regarding our own institutional policies as well as new relevant findings that could be practice-changing. It’s amazing seeing the sausage being made, but it’s also terrifying because the Attendings and veteran physicians that we as trainees look to for answers are now looking to each other for answers and opening the floor to all ideas.
The good news is that while we don’t have the answers yet (and we may never have all the answers), we can take comfort in knowing that we are in the golden age of data- and knowledge-sharing. Pooling the resources of physicians, epidemiologists, researchers, and statisticians internationally has allowed us to make great strides in our understanding of COVID-19 in a relatively short time, and work toward mitigating our greatest fear – the unknown.