BOSTON – As Dr. Rochelle Walensky works on the front lines of the coronavirus response in Boston, she finds a measure of comfort in her synagogue, Temple Emanuel of Newton.
“I said to them, the last time I spoke with them, ‘I’m thinking I need you more than you need me,’” Walensky recalled. “I have a sense it’s getting emotionally pretty hard. I certainly have everybody’s cell phone number … I may need to use it in the weeks ahead.”
Walensky is the head of the Division of Infectious Diseases at Mass General Hospital, during what has been a year like no other for her and other Jewish infectious disease doctors in Boston. They and their colleagues are on the front lines of the coronavirus pandemic, which has infected more than a million people worldwide, including in the U.S.
“It’s a little bit like being in a tunnel looking at an oncoming train,” Walensky said. “I’ve been in close contact with colleagues in New York. I see what’s happening in New York. We’re doing the things we can to prepare for what may happen in Boston.”
She added, “We’re trying to do everything we possibly can, the best we can, should that happen here.” She said that MGH is seeking “as many ventilators as possible so we can maximize what we do to the most numbers of people. It’s like nothing I’ve ever seen.”
That’s echoed by colleagues at MGH and elsewhere, including Boston Medical Center where epidemiologist Ben Linas described feeling similarly overwhelmed.
“It’s a scary, anxious process,” Linas said. “There’s a shortage of personal protective equipment … Sometimes it all gets, like, a little ugly in meetings. We’re close friends, but we get angry with each other.”
A supervisory attending physician, Linas was originally on a two-week rotation before that changed to one week. “It was too much, too overwhelming,” Linas explained. Now he supervises from home.
“It’s strange,” he reflected. “I’m at my house, but I’m always working. I no longer have a clear distinction between my work and non-work life. My kids are home, I’m with family all day on the one hand, but when I get a call on my pager, I get back online with the team of infectious disease doctors making significant decisions about patients in the ICU.”
Another doctor working remotely is Mark Pasternack, the chief of pediatric infectious diseases at MGH and a member of the adult infectious diseases department. Pasternack’s age has placed him in a high-risk category.
“The department asked that I stay away from frontline practice,” Pasternack said. “I’m still very, very busy, just in a different way.” He leads a group of six infectious disease colleagues, with all meetings now virtual.
In another sign of the times, both Pasternack and Linas discussed virtual Seders that are in the plans for Passover. Walensky anticipated having “a very quiet Passover.”
“People from our tradition have learned to cope with catastrophe,” Pasternack said. Yet, he added, “We’re all learning how to do this together.”
As difficult as things are, all three doctors who spoke with the Jewish Journal said that the strain on hospitals could be lessened if the public observes certain rules of thumb.
“A lot of people just want the test,” Walensky said. “Right now we have no bandwidth to do the test or capacity to do the test. For somebody who was otherwise in the same situation one year ago, ride it out. There’s no reason to do it differently right now. Eighty percent of people with mild to moderate symptoms, who have these symptoms, do well at home.”
Linas said that danger signs requiring an immediate call to a doctor include “really high fever … if you’re short of breath, you can’t go up a flight of stairs, or if you have pain in your chest.” He added that for those with a fever, sore throat or cough should contact their doctor and not immediately go to the emergency room.
Walensky cited several risk factors for coronavirus disease, such as “chronic lung disease, diabetic, elderly over 60 years old, immunosuppressed,” adding that for people in these categories with probable symptoms, “give your doctor a call about whether they want to see you, whether they want you to get a test.” Linas also listed high blood pressure and cancer among these categories.
Pasternack knows how close to home the situation can hit. His father lost an elderly friend to the virus.
“He was blessed with a long life. To have it end this way is hard,” Pasternack said. “It’s going to be one of thousands of thousands of thousands of stories that will touch everyone, whether through a close friend or family, over time.”