Health care workers observe extra precautions amid COVID-19

Media Credit: File Photo by Eric Lee

The GW Hospital's approach to patient treatment has shifted to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Health care professionals in GW’s medical enterprise are working up to 12-hour shifts as the District approaches its peak COVID-19 caseload.

Staff in the School of Medicine and Health Sciences, GW Hospital and Medical Faculty Associates said they have taken on longer hours, increased safety precautions and shifted patient care protocols to prevent spreading COVID-19. The precautions come as D.C. braces for its highest number of cases in April.

Sonal Batra, an assistant professor of emergency medicine who works shifts at GW Hospital, said hospital staff have curtailed the use of Nebulizers – an asthma treatment – and CPAP machines, which treat respiratory illnesses like sleep apnea, to avoid spreading respiratory droplets. She said staff have instead opted to treat patients with respiratory illnesses using inhalers and high-flow nasal cannula, a device used to provide patients with supplemental oxygen.

Batra added that she and other hospital staff wear head-to-toe personal protective equipment – like hospital-issued scrubs, N95 masks and gloves – for their entire shift. She said she would periodically change her mask prior to the pandemic but now opts to wear the same N95 mask all day to avoid exposing herself to the virus.

“There are common things that we would do for critically ill patients with other diseases that we’re not doing frequently anymore,” Batra said.

She said she enters her house through a back door leading to her basement and takes a shower before going upstairs to keep her and her family safe during the pandemic. But she said the precautions GW Hospital has adopted have “mitigated” her concern over contracting COVID-19.

Officials announced they would temporarily house medical professionals in residence halls late last month. The first group of medical workers moved into Munson Hall beginning last week, according to an email sent to the GW community Friday. Hospital officials have postponed elective surgeries, rescheduled all “non-essential” appointments and instituted testing sites at the hospital and the MFA.

Health care providers in GW’s medical enterprise tested positive for the novel coronavirus last month. Officials said in an email to the GW community that individuals afflicted with the virus were self-isolating and “doing well.”

“I do have some degree of concern that I’ll get COVID and pass it along to my husband and my kids, but even if I do get it, I’m trying to minimize how much of the virus they are exposed to,” Batra said.

Yasmin Al-Atrache, an MFA physician assistant and clinical assistant professor of emergency medicine, said she works 10 to 12 hour shifts at the GW Hospital and the United Medical Center several days a week and assists operations at the MFA COVID-19 testing site.

Officials at the GW Hospital, MFA and University partnered to build a drive-thru and walk-thru COVID-19 testing site on 20th and H Streets earlier this month. The site operates from 9:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., and patients need an order from a physician to receive the testing.

Al-Atrache said staff are required to wear only hospital-issued scrubs, N95 masks – which health care workers wear to block splashes and large particle droplets – and gloves at all times when in the hospital, even if they are not directly caring for COVID-19 patients.

“Things are moving a little bit slower just because we’re having to wear lots of protective equipment, not just getting into the hospital to see the COVID patients but just in general just being in the hospital now,” she said.

Al-Atrache said she leaves her shoes outside her door at home and self-isolates at all times to prevent spreading the disease to others, especially vulnerable populations like the elderly and chronically ill.

“Being able to self-quarantine and practice distancing and not going out unless it’s for emergencies, that is very important, and it makes a very big difference in terms of infection rates, as well as keeping people in the community safe,” she said.

Ahmad Aalam, a medical resident at GW Hospital, said he is currently working within the Telemedicine ED team, which offers virtual health services to patients, and the COVID-19 hotline response team at GW. Aalam said he triages patients at the screening tent, based on the severity of their symptoms and either diverts them to the GW Hospital emergency room or a physician via telemedicine.

GW is currently triaging patients showing symptoms of COVID-19 due to a shortage of available tests. Officials from the D.C. Department of Health refused to test a GW Hospital patient with a suspected case of COVID-19 last month, just after the first presumptive COVID-19 case was confirmed in D.C., because she was not deemed sick enough to receive the test despite hospital staff’s insistence that she be screened.

Aalam said he is glad to see fewer people visiting health care facilities in person but is concerned that some people in the D.C. area who have the virus may not be able to access the health care they need.

“Things are changing, and we are trying to help COVID and non-COVID patients by communicating via telehealth means,” he said in an email.

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