When our youngest son was hospitalized at age 13, we noticed that he thanked each and every hospital worker who came into his room to perform a service. Whether it was a doctor with news about his progress, a nurse to flush the IV line, the person from dietary with a tray or the environmental worker who emptied the trash, he unfailingly expressed appreciation. (Lest I give the wrong impression, he showed no such courtesy to his parents, brothers or teachers — a holy terror on wheels).

How can we begin to show such appreciation for the multitude of health care workers caring for people with COVID-19 and other hospitalized patients? (After all, heart attacks, strokes and accidents do not know to slow down to make room for people afflicted with COVID-19).

At this point in the pandemic, words of kindness will not be sufficient; our actions will speak louder than words. The most two important things we can do are:

1. Slow the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus so the number of critically ill patients doesn’t exceed hospital capacity. 

It is now becoming evident that many of those infected, but not showing symptoms, are actually contagious.

2. Protect healthcare workers and other hospital employees to prevent them from being exposed, quarantined, or becoming ill.

Here’s what public health professionals have been recommending for weeks to “flatten the curve.”

  • STAY HOME and limit your contact to people in your household.
  • If you must go out, and are not on lockdown, practice SOCIAL DISTANCING to avoid being exposed to coughs and sneezes from potentially infected people who are not yet showing symptoms.
  • AVOID GROUPS of more than 10 people.
  • Practice thorough HAND HYGIENE (wash with soap for 20 seconds, or use hand sanitizer that is at least 60% alcohol).
  • DON’T TOUCH YOUR FACE. The COVID-19 coronavirus typically enters your body through your eyes, nose and mouth.

Healthcare workers ask people to stay homeAn ICU nurse in Pennsylvania reports that she and her colleagues are no longer permitted to use personal protective equipment when caring for patients who have tested positive for VRE and MRSA so that dwindling supplies can be saved for COVID-19 care. “Just seems like we aren’t prepared for the worst and are willing to sacrifice our normal precautions for new ones,” she said.

Dr. Megan Ranney, emergency medicine physician, has been vocal on social media and television in her appeal to replenish the supplies of personal protective equipment (PPE) before they run out. Despite promises from the highest levels of governments, there are myriad reports of shortfalls of masks and gowns. Several hard-hit hospitals have asked for members of the public to make masks because their own supplies of surgical masks are critically low. JOANN Fabrics is opening its classrooms and donating materials to those who would like to make masks for healthcare workers and infected patients.

Remember, too, that hospitals can only function with large numbers of non-medical support staff. Think beyond doctors, nurses, respiratory therapists and PAs. Every day, thousands of other hospital workers — security guards, cooks, clerks, transporters, and many others — put their own health at risk to participate in the care of hospital patients. Thank them, show them respect and understand that they, like the rest of us, will be stressed, scared and worried for their own safety and that of their families.

In addition to flattening the curve with social distancing, here’s what you can do to help protect health care workers so that they will be ready when you need them to care for you or a loved one:

  • AVOID EMERGENCY ROOMS unless you have a life-threatening illness or severe injury that requires immediate treatment. People who are not critically ill will face long waits as sicker patients are prioritized. If you are infected but not very sick, you will easily spread the virus to other patients and healthcare workers while you wait. If you are not yet infected, you may easily be exposed while you wait to be seen.
  • AVOID HEALTHCARE FACILITIES. Reschedule elective surgery and get routine procedures such as chemo treatments or blood draws in-home if you can.
    USE TELEMEDICINE for minor illnesses or routine checkups to avoid catching or spreading the virus in your doctor’s office.
  • SELF-ISOLATE and SELF-TREAT if you are ill and your symptoms aren’t severe enough that you would normally go to the hospital.
  • DONATE N95 or surgical masks if you have surplus. In some cases, construction-grade face masks may be acceptable. Call your local hospital’s main switchboard (not the ER) to find out if they are accepting donations of non-medical N95 masks.
  • MAKE MASKS for healthcare workers if you are healthy and home on lockdown.

All these measures can help protect the healthcare workers on the front lines of this crisis.

Italy gives us a preview of where we may be headed if we don’t flatten the curve, and protect hospital capacity. Italy’s healthcare system is in near collapse with dwindling supplies of personal protective equipment, ventilators, and hospital beds. Critically ill COVID-19 patients have overwhelmed the public health infrastructure, with hospitals overloaded and staff unable to keep up with demand. Unfortunately we also have many reports from Italy and from China indicating casualties among doctors caring for patients with COVID-19.

We now know that the Italian government was unprepared for the deluge of cases flooding the hospitals.  System failure might be our fate in the U.S. as well and we may be headed in a similar direction as Italy, doctors are forced to decide, many times a day, which patient gets the ventilator, and which patient dies. We can, however, act now to prevent this.

In the coming weeks, health care workers will be overburdened, sleep deprived and stressed far beyond normal limits.  Despite best efforts, since physicians, nurses and other health care professionals are only human, in this environment, it will be more likely that medical errors will be committed.

According to a physician in Minnesota, “It just got a bit harder to ensure quality care as we have locked our wards so that there are no visitors/family members to track care for patients…hoping the patients are with it enough to do so and teams double check orders.”

Now, more than ever, is the time to be vigilant, informed and a good advocate for yourself, if you’re hospitalized, or for your hospitalized loved one.  We know this will be extremely difficult in light of restrictions for visitors and loved ones of patients in isolation.

About the Author

Author, Speaker, Hospitalization Expert, Researcher

Author and speaker Sara L. Merwin MPH received her Master of Public Health degree in epidemiology from the Columbia Mailman School of Public Health and has worked as a clinical researcher at Northwell Health System and Montefiore Medical Center. She has held faculty appointments at Zucker Hofstra School of Medicine and Albert Einstein College of Medicine. Her career and research focus includes patient and professional education and communication.