Internist reports from COVID-19 front lines near Seattle


– The first thing I learned in this outbreak is that my sense of alarm has been deadened by years of medical practice. As a primary care doctor working south of Seattle, in the University of Washington’s Kent neighborhood clinic, I have dealt with long hours, the sometimes-insurmountable problems of the patients I care for, and the constant, gnawing fear of missing something and doing harm. To get through my day, I’ve done my best to rationalize that fear, to explain it away.

Dr. Elisabeth Poorman, University of Washington, Seattle

Dr. Elisabeth Poorman

I can’t explain how, when I heard the news of the coronavirus epidemic in China, I didn’t think it would affect me. I can’t explain how news of the first patient presenting to an urgent care north of Seattle didn’t cause me, or all health care providers, to think about how we would respond. I can’t explain why so many doctors were dismissive of the very real threat that was about to explode. I can’t explain why it took 6 weeks for the COVID-19 outbreak to seem real to me.

If you work in a doctor’s office, emergency department, hospital, or urgent care center and have not seen a coronavirus case yet, you may have time to think through what is likely to happen in your community. After Washington state’s first case of COVID-19 became publicly known, few health care workers or leaders took the opportunity to work on our protocols, run drills, and check our supplies. We did not activate a chain of command or decide how information was going to be communicated to the front line and back to leadership. Few of us ran worst-case scenarios.

By March 12, we had 376 confirmed cases, and likely more than a thousand are undetected. The moment of realization of the severity of the outbreak didn’t come to me until Saturday, Feb. 29. In the week prior, several patients had come into the clinic with symptoms and potential exposures, but not meeting the narrow Centers for Disease Control and Prevention testing criteria. They were all advised by the Washington Department of Health to go home. At the time, it seemed like decent advice. Frontline providers didn’t know that there had been two cases of community transmission weeks before, or that one was about to become the first death in Washington state. I still advised patients to quarantine themselves. In the absence of testing, we had to assume everyone was positive and should stay home until 72 hours after their symptoms resolved. Studying the state’s FMLA [Family and Medical Leave Act] intently, I wrote insistent letters to inflexible bosses, explaining that their employees needed to stay home.

I worked that Saturday. Half of my patients had coughs. Our team insisted that they wear masks. One woman refused, and I refused to see her until she did. In a customer service–oriented health care system, I had been schooled to accommodate almost any patient request. But I was not about to put my staff and other patients at risk. Reluctantly, she complied.

On my lunch break, my partner called me to tell me he was at the grocery store. “Why?” I asked, since we usually went together. It became clear he was worried about an outbreak. He had been following the news closely and tried to tell me how deadly this could get and how quickly the disease could spread. I brushed his fears aside, as more evidence of his sweet and overly cautious nature. “It’ll be fine,” I said with misplaced confidence.

Later that day, I heard about the first death and the outbreak at Life Care, a nursing home north of Seattle. I learned that firefighters who had responded to distress calls were under quarantine. I learned through an epidemiologist that there were likely hundreds of undetected cases throughout Washington.

On Monday, our clinic decided to convert all cases with symptoms into telemedicine visits. Luckily, we had been building the capacity to see and treat patients virtually for a while. We have ramped up quickly, but there have been bumps along the way. It’s difficult to convince those who are anxious about their symptoms to allow us to use telemedicine for everyone’s safety. It is unclear how much liability we are taking on as individual providers with this approach or who will speak up for us if something goes wrong.

Patients don’t seem to know where to get their information, and they have been turning to increasingly bizarre sources. For the poorest, who have had so much trouble accessing care, I cannot blame them for not knowing whom to trust. I post what I know on Twitter and Facebook, but I know I’m no match for cynical social media algorithms.

Testing was still not available at my clinic the first week of March, and it remains largely unavailable throughout much of the country. We have lost weeks of opportunity to contain this. Luckily, on March 4, the University of Washington was finally allowed to use their homegrown test and bypass the limited supply from the CDC. But our capacity at UW is still limited, and the test remained unavailable to the majority of those potentially showing symptoms until March 9.

I am used to being less worried than my patients. I am used to reassuring them. But over the first week of March, I had an eerie sense that my alarm far outstripped theirs. I got relatively few questions about coronavirus, even as the number of cases continued to rise. It wasn’t until the end of the week that I noticed a few were truly fearful. Patients started stealing the gloves and the hand sanitizer, and we had to zealously guard them. My hands are raw from washing.

Throughout this time, I have been grateful for a centralized drive with clear protocols. I am grateful for clear messages at the beginning and end of the day from our CEO. I hope that other clinics model this and have daily in-person meetings, because too much cannot be conveyed in an email when the situation changes hourly.

But our health system nationally was already stretched thin before, and providers have sacrificed a lot, especially in the most critical settings, to provide decent patient care. Now we are asked to risk our health and safety, and our family’s, and I worry about the erosion of trust and work conditions for those on the front lines. I also worry our patients won’t believe us when we have allowed the costs of care to continue to rise and ruin their lives. I worry about the millions of people without doctors to call because they have no insurance, and because so many primary care physicians have left unsustainable jobs.

I am grateful that few of my colleagues have been sick and that those that were called out. I am grateful for the new nurse practitioners in our clinic who took the lion’s share of possibly affected patients and triaged hundreds of phone calls, creating note and message templates that we all use. I am grateful that my clinic manager insisted on doing a drill with all the staff members.

I am grateful that we were reminded that we are a team and that if the call center and cleaning crews and front desk are excluded, then our protocols are useless. I am grateful that our registered nurses quickly shifted to triage. I am grateful that I have testing available.

This week, for the first time since I started working, multiple patients asked how I am doing and expressed their thanks. I am most grateful for them.

I can’t tell you what to do or what is going to happen, but I can tell you that you need to prepare now. You need to run drills and catch the holes in your plans before the pandemic reaches you. You need to be creative and honest about the flaws in your organization that this pandemic will inevitably expose. You need to meet with your team every day and remember that we are all going to be stretched even thinner than before.

Most of us will get through this, but many of us won’t. And for those who do, we need to be honest about our successes and failures. We need to build a system that can do better next time. Because this is not the last pandemic we will face.

Dr. Elisabeth Poorman is a general internist at a University of Washington neighborhood clinic in Kent. She completed her residency at Cambridge (Mass.) Health Alliance and specializes in addiction medicine. She also serves on the editorial advisory board of Internal Medicine News.

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