What It’s Like Being A Capital Region Doctor On The Front Lines Of The COVID-19 Pandemic

With the COVID-19 pandemic bearing down on the Capital Region right now, it’s tough not to panic. It’s a scary time, and we’re all worried about catching the potentially deadly virus. Not to mention the fact that New York State has the highest number of cases of any of the 50 states and those numbers are ballooning.

But what if it was your job to be calm, cool and collected all day, every day? You know, actually be around people that were possibly infected with the virus and try to help treat them as best you could, with supplies of protective gear dwindling. That’s what Dr. Elizabeth Sandel, DO, has been dealing with on a daily basis at Lettrick Family Medicine, a small family medical practice based in Castleton-on-Hudson, NY, just southeast of Albany.

Full disclosure: I know her as “Badass Beth,” one of the other gym-rat regulars that, up until recently, congregated at anatomie in Troy every weekday morning at 6am to get pulverized for 45 minutes. I didn’t realize she was a doctor until yesterday, when I saw her expressing frustration about her general, daily malaise on social media. It made me feel like a jerk for all of the times I’d complained about anything, work-related, over the last three weeks. And it got me thinking.

I asked her if she’d give you a peek into the life of a Capital Region doctor during the COVID-19 crisis, and she agreed. I’m hoping her answers below allow Capital Region residents to understand just how lucky they are to be in isolation at home right now.

Have you dealt with anyone that has displayed symptoms of COVID-19 or has come in thinking they might have it?
We definitely have patients who have had contact [and] were displaying symptoms—sore throat, cough, fever, shortness of breath—[but] so far, all of our tests have come back negative. Initially, we didn’t have the test kits, and we still have a very limited supply—[and] the recommendation had been anyone who came in direct contact [with someone who had COVID-19], came from a pandemic area or was displaying symptoms, we would send to these tents set up outside of [Albany] Memorial or Albany Med to get tested. We would triage the phone calls, and then send the order forms over. But, they ran out of tests, so now we’re at a point where we don’t really know [how many people have been infected].

Where are doctors getting these tests in the first place?
I work for Dr. [Michael] Lettrick and I know he got them through LabCorp. He was only allotted 8-10, and most offices have only been allotted 8-10, so we’re very, very, very careful with who we’re going to use those on, and if we were going to [test] somebody—and I’ve done this multiple times today—we just kind of suit up with the limited supplies that we have for our protection, and we go out to [their] car, and we do our visit there at their car to keep them out of the office. Because the last thing we need is everybody in the office getting it. That’s the current state of things.

We’re trying to limit our well-patient visits [i.e. routine checkups], we’re doing a lot of phone consultations. If somebody needs to be seen because they have abdominal pain or symptoms unrelated to [COVID-19], we will obviously see them, but we’re trying to keep [that down to a minimum]. Last week, in the mornings, we saw all of our non-COVID-related-illness patients, and in the afternoon, we would see more respiratory infections or strep throat or influenza that we didn’t feel were COVID-19 risks. This week, my boss really felt like that should be changed, so he does not really want any upper-respiratory symptoms in the office at all. That’s why I started going out to the car. There’s really not a good guideline for us, and we don’t have test kits. We don’t have the proper protective equipment for us or our patients, so it’s a little bit tricky.

What are you most worried about right now?
My main worry is that we are in a state where we are expecting our medical professionals to go in completely unprotected. You see these videos of hazmat suits—we don’t have the proper protective equipment. I’m allotted one N95 respirator mask a day. That’s not protocol. OSHA [Occupational Safety and Health Administration] says we’re supposed to use it on one patient, then throw it out. And that’s not what’s happening. We can’t do that right now. That’s a little concerning. Plus, are we going to run out of gloves? Are we going to run out of basic supplies? I know that the hospitals are dealing with it, it’s not just our office. To me, that’s a huge concern.

The other major concern I have is how quickly can we get [the] rapid [COVID-19] test that’s been approved and can detect [COVID-19] in 45 minutes. To me, that’s a huge benefit, because we’d have people drive up, we’d do the test, have them wait, you’re positive or negative…and that, I think, would reduce the spread, because we’ll be able to detect who has it and who doesn’t, and if we’re able to do that in large quantities, we’ll be able to test even the most asymptomatic patients to see if they are carrying the disease. We know that—or we think we know that—it’s most contagious in those first few days of symptoms. We really just need to know how contagious are you for how long, we really just don’t know any of those answers.

What is the most important thing people can do who have to go out in public right now?
If you’re going to stores, try going at times where they’re just opening or late at night, when there will be less people there. You want to reduce the exposure by minimizing the amount of people in the building. But I do think, at this point, [wear] a basic mask and gloves, [and] if you have access to an N-95, [wear it]. And just try to keep six feet apart from people when you’re at the store. I do think it would benefit the stores to allow only a certain amount of people in at a time. Maybe there needs to be some kind of a rule for people to follow—here’s the days, if your last name starts with an S-Z, this is your supermarket, and you wait in line and get what you need. Limit it to 30 people in the store at once. Something where there could be a less easy way for [COVID-19] to spread. But I do worry that there are people that are not understanding [what] true social distancing means. And it’s going to extend this whole thing.

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