Dr. David Chong, an ICU doctor on NYC’s front line shares a few home truths about COVID-19.
It’s Easter Sunday, just after Passover, just after another exhausting 13 hour shift.
I can’t watch the news. I’m too busy and too frustrated by all the misinformation.
Forgive me, but I need to debunk a few viral myths.
Myth #1: COVID-19 is a disease of the old and sick
This cannot be further from the truth. As a critical care physician, I’m caring for the sickest of the sick. I know the data. What little good data there is, I see that 80% of ICU patients are under 65 (in a Wuhan study) or that 40% in ICU were under 60 (in an Italian study). The highest death age group was 60-69. The third highest was 50-59. The most common co-morbid conditions were high blood pressure, diabetes, and obesity.
These are not weird immune-related illnesses, they’re common, and this hits close to home. I’m 53, I have high blood pressure, diabetes and, like millions of Americans, I’m a little obese. Our stats? 60% of our intubated patients are under 65. Most of my ICU patients have never been sick enough to be hospitalized before this. Sure, many who die are old and have other illnesses, but the popular narrative almost says, if you’re not in a nursing home you’re safe. Nothing can be further from the truth. It’s a myth.
Myth number #2: The main concern is a lack of PPE and ventilators
Partially false. Sure, some NYC and UK caregivers have had to use cooking aprons, garbage bags, and other scraps to protect themselves, but many hospitals have all the PPE they need. Luckily, my hospital has been able to keep up with all our PPE needs. But many unanticipated shortages go unreported: COVID test swabs, dialysis machines, and dialysis fluid needed to keep people alive (COVID causes kidney failure), sedative medications, and we need more oxygen, we’re using so much.
But most of all, we need more amazing people. Especially nurses and respiratory therapists, because many are now sick and some have died. Over 100 doctors have died in Italy. Doctors, therapists, pharmacists, students, and others now have a new career as nursing assistants. No-one is a specialist anymore, we are all COVID care providers. Thank you to the many volunteer doctors and nurses from all across the US that have come to NYC to help. Recovery for patients can take weeks to months, so we’ll need your help and sacrifice for a while yet.
Myth #3: Hydroxychoriquine is a “game changer” and it’s safe
This potentially false idea was launched on the back of a very small trial from France. I’ve read the paper and it has major flaws. Three larger and more recent trials were negative but they don’t get press. These “game changer” drugs have dangerous side-effects. A recent trial in Brazil was stopped early for fear that high-dose chloroquine was killing people. Other drugs, however, show promise. Watch this space but no “game changers” yet.
Myth #4: Social distancing is our only option and it’s easy to do
This is also untrue. My home, NYC, is one of the most densely populated cities in the world. Many of my patients are poor and immigrated here. They live in small apartments with large families. Social distancing is impossible for many parts of NYC. And in the US more than 10% of the workforce is unemployed.
Sure, we’re finally flattening the curve, but as a Korean-American, I am proud to say that South Korea did it better and they didn’t shut down their economy. They tested, tested, tested, tracked, and isolated people and provided a mobile app, food, masks, and a thermometer to track their fever. This was done for visitors as well as citizens. The US hasn’t tested widely or efficiently enough. And we need to talk about the painful economic and human impacts of social distancing. Banning all hospital visitors means many terrified patients dying lonely deaths. The loss of human dignity is unimaginable.
Myth #5: We can blame China for the current US pandemic
This is false. Recent research shows that our outbreak in NYC came from Europe. And how helpful are country labels anyway? The 1918 Spanish Flu apparently didn’t originate in Spain, so should we rename it? When it comes to infectious diseases, borders mean nothing in our global economic village, but anti-Asian sentiment has spiked all over the world.
Just read the online hate speech about the “KungFlu” and the “WuhanVirus”. As an Asian American, who is doing as much as I can, this is very distressing.
Andrew Yang wrote, “We need to step up, help our neighbors, donate … and do everything in our power to accelerate the end of this crisis.” This is what my wife and I and so many others are doing. I work 12-15 hours days alongside residents, doctors, nurses, pharmacists, and others. (BTW, many of these heroes are Asian-American.) We’re active in our local church, and my wife has a Facebook group that donates tens of thousands of dollars to food and supplies for front-line workers. Daily, she buys food from struggling restaurants, delivers it to the hospital, and I distribute it in between seeing my patients. This has been our life for months and will be our future for a while.
Does it really matter if the virus is from China, Europe, or Mars? Our response would have been the same: to save as many lives as we can.
Myth number #6: This is all overblown, COVID is just like the Flu
I’m just shocked by this one. The infectivity of COVID 19 is three times that of the flu, and it is 40 times more deadly (Dr. Fauci says “10 times”). On Good Friday in NYC, 783 patients died; that’s one death every 2 minutes. In the US, it was one death every 42 seconds. Brace yourself. This is nothing like the flu. If you don’t believe me, just walk into any emergency room in New York, Detroit, Miami, LA, or New Orleans.
On a final and personal note, I’m blown away by the response of my residents, my colleagues, the people around me, and all NYC hospital staff. Never have I been more proud to be a health care worker and a residency director. I’m impressed by the sacrifice and commitment of all my residents. I’m in awe of their hard work. These are the finest people on earth. I am humbled by their sacrifice and courage to go above and beyond the call of duty. Oddly, it took a pandemic to bring us this level of mass cooperation.
But it’s also frightening.
I have practiced critical care medicine for more than 25 years and never have I been so challenged, saddened, and emotional. Almost every hour of every shift, someone needs intensive care. I’m very used to comforting patients and their families to prepare for death. I used to do this for someone weekly; now it’s hourly. Death has become very common: every shift, every ward, and in every emergency room.
It feels like a bomb went off somewhere and the whole of New York is slowly suffocating.
The 7 PM cheering for health care workers moves me. Previously, at parties, I’d say “I work in an ICU and I ventilate people”. That was a big conversation killer.
Now, I feel like a rock star or a military veteran. Who knows? Maybe one day I’ll get to priority board an airplane. But seriously; this experience will lead to future PTSD, pain, scars, and tears, for me and so many residents and health care workers.
For now, however, we really need your prayers and support.
I hope this demystifies a few things.
Thanks for reading. #columbiamedicine#columbiastrong
Dr. David H. Chong is the Medical Director for all Critical Care Services at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital/Columbia University Medical Center.