Elmhurst Hospital After the Coronavirus Surge: From Chaos to 'Scary Silence'
Elmhurst Hospital in Queens had been inundated by patients. The Times went back to see how the staff was recovering, and planning for the possibility of another wave.
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Elmhurst Hospital, which is in Queens, was one of the epicenters of coronavirus in New York City. It was the place that went viral. There were fears about running out of a lot of things: protective equipment, ventilators — many, many, more patients were dying every day in the hospital than usual. It was a very scary situation. I’m Sheri Fink. I’m a correspondent at The New York Times. Earlier this month, we were able to spend a day at Elmhurst. The number of new cases had dropped, but they had to figure out a new normal. And they also had to deal with the really, really difficult emotions that the staff had after having been in a situation of crisis for many weeks. “It felt surreal when it was crazy, and it’s real surreal a little bit now I think too.” There’s almost a scary silence because normal operations haven’t started yet, but yet new coronavirus cases have gone down. When coronavirus hit, people were not coming for other emergencies. What doctors are afraid of now is that that’s still the case. People may be dying at home because they’re not going to the hospital. “And it’s got the ability to talk to the patients without going in the room. It’s got an intercom system.” They were rapidly scrambling to try to reconfigure. There is a real urgency to get these hospitals back to being able to care for patients who did not have coronavirus. But also, they have to plan for the possibility that there will be another surge. So they are doing things like constructing plexiglass barriers for the registrars. They are taking whole units that were used for treating coronavirus patients, and they’re turning them back into regular intensive care units intended for people who don’t have Covid. These ultraviolet light emitters disperse this ultraviolet light, which can inactivate viruses and other pathogens. Early in the pandemic, they were worried that they didn’t have the equipment that they needed. There was a lot of fear. Now they have an advanced system for having P.P.E., for distributing it. It was very well organized. “You would have your bleach wipes, your sani-wipes, your gloves and isolation gowns.” There’s a big global demand for it. And so they try to use as little as possible while also staying safe. They’re also still engaged in treating patients with coronavirus. “The connections between E.T.T. and ventilator are secure?” As the cases were going up, doctors didn’t know, the staff didn’t know how long that would last. It wasn’t clear what kinds of treatments might help. “All of us were like, we’ll figure this out, and it’s just very frustrating to realize that to a certain extent nobody’s figured it out.” It really has had an impact on them — just seeing so many deaths and feeling so, so helpless. All around the hospital, there are displays of cards and messages of support. Some people seemed to really appreciate all of the thanks. But I spoke with others who have been telling me they also feel in some ways, that they weren’t able to save everybody. A lot of the health workers are staying in hotels, and so they arrive for their shifts on these buses. There is round of applause for essential workers. That happens every night at 7. And one of the nice things at Elmhurst is that the staff — they arrive right around 7 o’clock. And so some of these providers walked off the bus, and there was the sound of clapping and cheering, and people honking their horns. And I was noticing that their heads were down, most of them didn’t really look up and acknowledge the applause. They have worked through the peak of this coronavirus, and some of them are exhausted, both physically and emotionally. And they’re also just filled with the sense that they don’t yet know what lies ahead.