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As coronavirus numbers rise, front-line workers ask mask skeptics to see through their eyes

A staff member gets help putting on safety gear before entering a negative pressure room at Sharp Memorial Chula Vista Intensive Care Unit on June 24th, 2020 in Chula Vista, Calif.

ALEJANDRO TAMAYO/TNS

By PAUL SISSON | The San Diego Union-Tribune | Published: June 27, 2020

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SAN DIEGO (Tribune News Service) — For three months now, they've seen COVID-19 up close, squinting through face shields and ICU windows streaked and often hazy from constant cleaning.

Their eyes, reddened from the constant rush of air-handling systems and endless vital statistic vigilance, have seen patient after patient fight this virus alone.

They've seen loved ones weep, and surely shed more than a few tears themselves, as some have succumbed despite their tireless efforts.

Lateley, though, it's what the tired eyes of front-line workers are seeing outside the hospitals where they work that has been most disheartening.

On their social media feeds, in conversations with people they know, they're seeing fewer people wearing face coverings and keeping their distance from others outside their immediate households. And, this week, they can't help but see the numbers creeping up. It's obvious, plain to see, that many have decided this COVID thing is over.

But the work never stopped inside hospitals. Even when things were relatively "quiet" over the past few months, the hospitals hit hardest have continued to send their workers into rooms where COVID patients have continued to demand their unblinking attention.

None have been hit harder than South Bay hospitals, which have long seen the region's highest rates of COVID-19 admissions.

Conversations this week with medical professionals at three facilities — Paradise Valley Medical Center in National City, Scripps Mercy Hospital Chula Vista and Sharp Chula Vista Medical Center — revealed the same basic message over and over again: We wish you all could see what we've been seeing day in, day out, for so long now.

Brandon Aberg, Charge Nurse, Paradise Valley Hospital

A charge nurse in Paradise Valley's emergency department who has been working at the facility for five years, Brandon Aberg said that seeing COVID-19 up close has shown him that this disease, while it is less severe for younger people, does not have any particular mercy for the young. He has, he said, seen all manner of consequences for all types of people.

"What these people, healthy people in their 30s, 40s, are going through, fighting for their lives, and I see somebody out in the community just not caring, it breaks my heart," Aberg said. "It breaks my heart, and it scares me, and it angers me."

Those who are skeptical, he said, should understand that it's quite possible to be the one to bring your entire family low.

"A whole family will end up going on ventilators, anywhere from kids that are in their 20s to the mom in her 50s to the grandma in her 70s. It will affect the entire family," he said.

Dr. Dennis Amundson, medical director, Scripps Mercy Hospital Chula Vista ICU

Having spent a full career in the Navy, including a tour in Viet Nam and time caring for Special Forces troops, Dr. Dennis Amundson has seen plenty during his 43-year career. COVID-19 care, he said, has been as tough as anything he has seen before. One of the hardest parts, he said, is watching patients suffer as they struggle to breathe during the stage of severe illness where inflammation stops the lungs from pushing oxygen into the blood.

It's difficult, he said, watching those hit hardest by this disease struggle alone for so long. People don't realize, he said, just how exhausting breathing can be when your lungs are inflamed.

"You cough and you gasp and, finally, sometimes you ask us to go ahead and please put the tube in so I can rest," Amundson said.

Calling this a hoax, as many have recently done, he said, is laughable.

"It would be the best hoax I've ever seen," he said. "This is the real deal. What we see here is people that are incredibly sick, and they stay sick."

Jessica Osburn, registered nurse, Sharp Chula Vista Medical Center

A traveling nurse from northern Iowa who came to San Diego to help out when cases spiked at the facility in early May, Jessica Osburn said the experience of caring for COVID-19 patients when no one yet fully understands its effects has been draining. Add the fact that visitors are now allowed, she said, and nurses often find themselves video chatting with terrified family members, trying to answer questions that do not have perfect answers.

"It's hard to paint a picture for the family when I'm learning as I'm going as well," Osburn said.

The public, she said, sees brief snippets of this disease in pictures of ICU patients laid out in bed, unconscious and vulnerable. What they don't often understand is what it takes to get out of that bed and out of the hospital.

"It's so much larger than the ICU bed. If they make it out of here, they have an extremely long road ahead of them. Their quality of life, I can't say that it is ever going to be what it was pre-COVID."

It would be nice, she added, if the caseload could permanently decrease, alleviating the need for her to remain far from home.

"I would love for everybody to wear a mask so I can see my family again, so the spread slows down and we can go back to whatever the new normal is going to be," she said.

Charge nurse Vanessa Ransaw, Paradise Valley Hospital

Vanessa Ransaw, who works in a COVID-19 unit for patients not yet in need of intensive care, said many don't realize that this is dangerous work. With three kids at home, the fear of infecting loved ones in the process of just doing her job is ever present, she said.

"My coworkers have been exposed, there's been actual coworkers that have tested positive as well. Our safety is put into jeopardy just caring for patients every single day," said Ransaw, who started as a secretary in 1999 at the hospital where she has spent her career.

Constantly putting on and taking off protective gear is a never-ending grind, she added, making even the most routine patient checks take significantly longer than they used to.

"We're tired, and we don't want to see the numbers go back up again," she said.

Dr. Steven Rough, interventional cardiologist, Sharp Chula Vista Medical Center

There is a thought that younger people fare better than older people when they become infected by the SARS-CoV-2 virus, said Dr. Steven Rough, clad in layers of protective gear just before entering a suspected COVID patient's room on a recent afternoon. That's true. Older people and people with other complicating medical conditions tend, on average, to fare worse than young, healthy people.

But that's just an average. He recalled a recent young person in their 20s or 30s admitted with COVID-19 symptoms before an older person in their same family. The older person, he said, actually was sent home two weeks before their younger family member.

"You don't know if you're going to be the one," Rough said. "You could be fine for a few days, just a little bit of a cold, and then, all of the sudden, dramatically you'll start to have these symptoms (like) shortness of breath going up a flight of stairs."

He asks mask skeptics to consider what it would be like to infect a parent, spouse or friend.

"You could be one of those asymptomatic carriers, and an individual could accidentally be exposed without even realizing it," he said. "Wearing the mask has some effect."

Terry Taylor, manager, Scripps Mercy Hospital Chula Vista ICU

While COVID-19 has definitely made health care workers more efficient, Terry Taylor said it has also humbled a workforce that prides itself on getting patients home, and off serious health measures such as mechanical ventilators quickly.

"What's been heartbreaking is that these people are here for weeks, over a month, can't get them off their breathing machine," Taylor said. "Sometimes they make it, sometimes they don't. The number of people who die is not comfortable for any of us. Never will be."

She does not have much patience for the oft-employed argument that asking someone to cover their face when out and about is a violation of personal rights.

"Wearing a mask, I think, is a minimal ask of anybody," she said. "It's a violation of human rights to expose somebody who is not going to be able to survive this COVID."

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