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Reporting from a Covid-19 floor: Precautions, protection, fear of unknown

Journalists go places where others can't and then tell the story. Sometimes that's on a red carpet or into the White House. This time, it was on the front lines of the battle against the coronavirus.

I was weary and wary of the world. This pandemic hit me that way.

When I ventured out to the supermarket or for takeout, I had the socially inconvenient habit of looking at everything, and everybody, as if the coronavirus could be clinging.

Then I received a text asking me to walk willingly into a Covid-19 hot zone. I said yes – three times.

I’d like to tell you I was having an existential confront-your-fears moment. But really, I was just doing my job, and so was staff photographer Sharon Cantillon. Walking onto a Covid-19 floor, one of my close friends told me, “sounds like a very stupid thing to do.”

But I thought it was a very journalist thing to do. We go places where others can’t and then tell the story. Sometimes that’s a red carpet or into the White House, or on a manhunt or inside a prison. This time, it put us inside layers of protective gear, chronicling a fight that is as human as it is scientific as we visited three hospitals – Buffalo General Medical Center, Erie County Medical Center and Catholic Health System’s Covid-19 Treatment Facility at St. Joseph Campus – for our series, “Inside the Covid-19 Units.”

Cantillon told me later that she, too, gave a quick yes when The News’ director of photography, Cathaleen Curtiss, asked her about shooting photos for the story.

“I thought it’s something that hadn’t really been covered, and it was important to tell the story of the health care workers that are doing such courageous and difficult work,” she said.

But Curtiss asked Cantillon to think about it for a day or two.

“I told her I would pray about it and as I did, I had a total sense of peace from God about going onto a Covid-19 floor,” Cantillon said.

I had a sense that by walking into a place where I know the virus is intensely present, and seeing what’s being done against it, I would feel better about it.

Somehow, I thought that knowledge would help.

“It’s the fear of the unknown,” said Pamela Riley, a registered nurse and unit manager at Erie County Medical Center. We visited Riley’s medical/surgical zone, which has only Covid-19 patients, as well as ECMC’s medical intensive care units, known as MICUs.

“But here, we know,” Riley said. “We’re protected."

Registered nurse Kim Conley, nurse practitioner Faith Wayne and registered nurse Melissa Kozlowski care for patients in a Covid-19 ICU at ECMC. (Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News)

An administrator from one of the hospitals assured us that with our protective gear – goggles, gloves, gowns and N95 masks – we’d likely be safer there than in a grocery store.

That felt true, but not just because of the personal protective equipment, or PPE. Every place we visited in each hospital was set up to minimize the opportunity for the virus to spread. The doors for regular patient rooms – meaning the ones that are not critical care – were typically closed, and no visitors are allowed. (Imagine, then, the loneliness those patients must feel.) In the intensive care units, where patients are often visible through glass doors and walls that allow for monitoring, many are breathing through ventilators. That largely prevents virus particles from getting into the air.

Catholic Health Covid-19 Facility at St. Joseph Campus is treating just Covid-19 patients. Nurse Anesthetist Jusin Mullaney, CRNA, gets suited up with a full face respirator before going into ICU, Friday, April 10, 2020. (Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News)

People who stay on the outside of those rooms wear, at minimum, a surgical mask. Doctors, nurses and respiratory therapists who go inside the rooms and do hands-on work with patients, however, are closely exposed. They wore eye coverings – in some cases, face shields donated by Buffalo Sabres captain Jack Eichel and Bauer Hockey – and I saw them stripping off gowns and gloves every time they left a room.

The most stringent procedures were in place at the hospital where the coronavirus is likely most present – Catholic’s Health’s dedicated Covid-19 facility, which is at its St. Joseph Campus on Harlem Road in Cheektowaga. We were instructed to arrive in street clothes, with no masks or goggles. By hospital rule, no PPE is allowed in from the outside; everything is provided onsite. The Covid-19 Treatment Facility is divided into three zones: green, a designed safe area where people are in street clothes; yellow, a cautionary area where procedure masks and gloves are required; and red, the so-called “critical zone” where everybody has to wear full PPE.

Before we left the green zone, Catholic Health officials had us change into blue medical scrubs and fit us for N95 masks, which are designed to filter out harmful particles – including viruses – that may be floating in the air. They have a metal strip designed to pinch over your nose and help create a seal. Fitting them properly is a process that culminated with a licensed practical nurse, Dawn Campbell, placing a plastic cylinder over my head. She poked a small spray bottle through a hole in the front and continually pumped a saccharine mist. She asked me to count aloud, bend forward and move left and right.

Medical staff check the mask fit for Tim O'Shei before he is allowed on the floor. (Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News)

“Any taste?” Campbell asked.

I detected nothing, but asked what it should taste like. I didn’t want to mess with the N95 fit.

“You would know,” she said. “It’s very sweet.”

No sweetness. My mask was fine. We headed off.

When you enter the Covid-19 Treatment Facility’s red zone, you stop at a so-called “donning” station, where someone helps you properly wear your masks, gloves and other protective equipment. When you leave the zone, a person at the “doffing” station makes sure you safely remove it and, for us, provided disinfectant for Cantillon's cameras. When I was about to casually set down my phone – which provided my only form of taking notes (no paper or writing utensils were allowed in) – a worker stopped me and pointed to a table covered with disinfectant wipes. “Put in on there,” he said.

These are the procedures that help the medical personnel who work here every day feel safer.

“I’m more worried about going to the grocery store,” said Jessica Visser, a registered nurse and vice president of patient care services at the Covid-19 Treatment Facility and Sisters Hospital. “I’m not worried about bringing it home from here. I’m worried about all the other things.”

John LaForge, a charge nurse who took us on a tour of the Covid-19 facility with Visser, concurred. “There are no donners and doffers in the grocery store saying, ‘Hey, you two are too close together,’ ” he said.

“Yeah,” Visser said, “and all the people at the grocery store who are wearing masks, and then touching them, and then touching everything else.”

Stepping inside a hospital creates an intensified awareness of what you’re touching and what may be leaving with you. The most common precaution we heard at each hospital is that when medical workers arrive home, their shoes stay outside and their clothes go straight into a hot wash. “I feel safer here than I would some other places,” said LaForge, who told me that his children have learned that he has to shower before he gives them a hug.

But high protection and precautions don’t erase worries. I had a regular check-up scheduled for the week of our visits. My doctor’s office, when I mentioned that I had been visiting Covid-19 facilities, politely suggested that I switch my appointment to telemed. And though I haven’t had a temperature or any symptoms in the 14 days since our last visit, I haven’t walked into a grocery store, either.

Cantillon, who is also feeling well two weeks later, said, “I found it interesting in talking to some of the nurses that some were very worried about getting sick or getting their families sick. Others had been more worried at the beginning and were getting used to the danger of it and were now considering it to be the new normal.”

Medical ICU teams at Buffalo General have their morning huddle to discuss a plan for the day. (Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News)

It’s still an unnerving new normal.

At Buffalo General, I was standing in the back of the ICU speaking with registered nurses Mary Jane Poloncarz and Cindy Harris, who together have nearly 70 years of experience there. Sitting behind them at a computer was 25-year-old Chelsea Bowers, who is two months into her nursing career.

“I’m not getting normal orientation … but I’m still learning a lot," Bowers said. “I think it’s weirder for everyone else, because they know the difference.”

“You don’t know any better,” Harris said. “This is what you think it is.”

“Right?” Poloncarz said. “This is normal to you, whereas it’s not normal to us. The new normal.”

Bowers agreed. “I’ll have to relearn,” she said, referring to when things return to normal – whatever and whenever that normal may be.

I said to them something I repeated at every hospital: “Thanks for the work you’re doing.”

“We’re glad you guys are telling our story, because somebody needs to, right? Somebody needs to tell it how it really is,” Poloncarz said, and added, “Tell them we’re working our asses off to save people’s lives.” 

I could see that. In the two weeks since I visited, it’s helped me calm those nerves – more than a little.

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