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Tucson health-care workers 'preparing for war' as coronavirus cases here rise
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Tucson health-care workers 'preparing for war' as coronavirus cases here rise

From the Tucson-area coronavirus coverage from January to March: Nearly 1,300 cases in Arizona, stay-at-home order series

In addition to helping patients, local health-care workers are dealing with exhaustion and high risks of exposure to coronavirus as they cope with the disease.

Doctors, nurses and other health-care workers are bracing for the rise in Arizonans infected with the COVID-19 virus, which is expected to peak here in just a few weeks.

Exhaustion and high risks of exposure to coronavirus are ensured as they cope with a disease that has engulfed the world and, in Arizona, is causing the governor to call for a 50% increase in hospital bed capacity as soon as possible.

To help the local health-care workforce, several departments at the University of Arizona are collaborating with community partners to create a plan that will support them in areas of housing, emotional health and physical safety for both the workers and their families.

“Basically, this is about the Tucson community taking care of the people who will be providing health care for the community,” said Dr. Bradley A. Dreifuss, assistant professor of emergency medicine and public health at the University of Arizona’s College of Medicine.

More about the plan will be shared with the public next week, he said.

The Arizona Daily Star, in seeking to better understand what health-care workers are experiencing, spoke to several about what they are thinking, feeling and doing to prepare for what will likely be the greatest challenge of their professional lives. Several interviewed for this story did not want to include where they work because they were expressing political views or had a security concern.

Hitting home

Jennifer Wurster is a nurse practitioner who works at a local urgent-care center where personnel have been testing high-risk patients, those in group-living conditions and health-care workers with fevers and respiratory symptoms.

She’s been off work this past week and has been hiking a lot with her daughter — something that soothes her — but she returns Monday and is not sure what to expect.

Jennifer Wurster, a nurse practitioner, says hiking a lot with her daughter is something that soothes her.

The availability of supplies and test kits goes up and down: low one week, stocked up the next.

“Yesterday, my friend from North Carolina sent me a box of masks, goggles, gloves from a gardening website,” she said.

Wurster said the crisis became more upsetting and more real to her after her 22-year-old niece was recently hospitalized in Indiana after testing positive for the coronavirus. She is home now and is doing much better, Wurster said, but is still experiencing shortness of breath.

“She was the first person in her small town (with coronavirus). Her temp was up to 106,” she said. “It was touch and go. I was starting to get really scared. Part of me wondered if she would have permanent lung damage.”

Dr. David Boswell, bike-packing this week near Gardner Canyon.

“An unseen enemy”

Dr. David Boswell likens the looming threat of this virus to preparing for combat — and he would like to see the government act accordingly.

“We are essentially in a war,” he said, “a war with an unseen enemy.”

Boswell, who has worked in emergency medicine here for 25 years, said administrators at the hospital where he works have done a great job communicating with employees about how things are going.

However, he does not share this feeling about the Trump administration.

Anxiety about having enough protective gear and testing kits is not something doctors and nurses should be dealing with right now, he said.

“In my opinion, (Trump) was much more concerned about the public perception of him and the financial market — and I understand being concerned about the financial markets — but not at the expense of not preparing,” he said.

“South Korea was testing 11,000 per day when we had only tested 11,000 total. Why were we not working closely with that government?”

The government needs to mandate a fair price for equipment and supplies, and do it quickly so the hospitals and EMS agencies are not being gouged, he said.

“They need to tell these corporations we need ventilators and we need masks and protective barriers,” he said. “The Trump administration also needs to have a cohesive plan in place and communicate that plan so that we don’t feel abandoned as we do now.”

“Feeling really fortunate”

Taking care of elderly loved ones is registered nurse Alice Webb’s second career now that coronavirus cases are rising here.

Webb lives with her mother, who is a healthy senior, but she is also supporting and shopping for two older relatives who are more vulnerable.

Alice Webb, a registered nurse in Tucson, hiking with her dog, Abby-this.

Right now, she’s employed at Tucson Medical Center and knows she might need to work with patients hospitalized and sick with coronavirus.

If that happens, she will either move out of her house or have her mother go live with other relatives for a while.

“Right now, I have my own dedicated bathroom at home and we are not sharing dishes,” she said of being home with her mother. They are keeping some physical distance as well.

Is she frightened about what’s to come?

“I’m feeling really fortunate,” she said. “I have asthma, but I’m in really good shape, in very good health right now.”

She also said she feels grateful to live in Tucson, where people are taking social distancing seriously.

“I don’t think we’ve seen the worst of it yet,” she said, “but I really think that everybody is doing something about this, that we are connected over this, and I really appreciate that.”

Cindy Monroy is also a registered nurse who works with Webb at TMC. She’s already changed her routine a bit since this started, and is making her family do the same.

Monroy says she has long made a “wellness cocktail” for any time she feels like she’s coming down with something. Garlic, ginger, honey, apple cider vinegar and, most importantly, hot sauce.

Cindy Monroy, right, a registered nurse in Tucson, hiking with her daughter

For the last week and a half, she’s been doing that daily and adding chopped garlic cloves, along with extra vitamin C, more vinegar and tea as hot as she can stand it because, she said, “viruses and bacteria don’t like extreme temperatures.”

It’s a wellness remedy that’s worked well for her, but it’s not necessarily something she’d advocate for everyone. She emphasized that, if a health condition got serious, she’d certainly switch to pharmaceuticals.

At work, she said the policies are changing to better protect the employees: masks in all areas of the hospital all day long and regular, ongoing communication.

“It’s hard to keep up,” she said, “but we all know that hospitals have never seen anything like this before.”

Waiting for test results

Dr. Michelle Foth, a pediatrician at Callie Pediatrics, said the office has made several changes in the way it is handling things now, including keeping respiratory patients outside.

Kids presenting with respiratory symptoms who need a strep test now get it curbside, she said as an example.

However, they are still doing well checks and shots in the clinic, especially for their younger patients.

“We want to make sure we keep up with immunizations,” she said. “We don’t want there to be an outbreak of pertussis because of this.”

For the time being, Foth is at home and isolated as she waits for coronavirus test results. She said the symptoms started on Sunday, a fever that was not in keeping with the bad allergies she typically deals with at this time of year.

“The problem with this pandemic is that we’re tuned in to every little symptom,” she said. “Is it or isn’t it, is it or isn’t it?”

Dr. David Lane, an emergency-room physician, said his scrubs go straight into the wash when he gets home.

“The odds are I will get this”

Staying connected with friends and talking about something other than this virus are critical for Dr. David Lane, who has over 20 years of experience working in health care here.

Lane, an emergency-room physician at both St. Joseph’s and St. Mary’s hospitals, said working helps him take his mind off the virus and what it could mean in his life.

“The odds are I will get this,” he said. “I’m just trying to wall myself off from it emotionally.”

How are things changing for him as he prepares?

His son is staying with Lane’s ex-wife for now so there’s not any risk of exposure from him for either one of them.

He’s also focusing on getting new routines in place to offset years of doing things one particular way.

For example, he now walks directly into the laundry room when he gets home and his doctor scrubs go straight into the wash. Next, immediately, a shower.

“You have to make new routines,” he said. “You’ve gotta repeat and repeat them to make it automatic.”

Lane said neighbors have asked him if he needs groceries or help with anything else, which he finds very comforting.

“Community is so important for helping everyone get through this,” he said. “But I’m isolating myself as long as I’m working, until this ends.”

Contact reporter Patty Machelor at pmachelor@tucson.com or 806-7754. On Twitter: @pattymachstar.

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