Maryland ICU workers urge caution as states begin to reopen

Respiratory therapist Kevin Cole and his colleagues at a Maryland intensive care center have watched COVID-19 patients die and consoled their families. They’ve celebrated as some patients recovered enough to leave. But as soon as beds become available, they begin to fill up again.

So even as the state takes the first step toward reopening, they’re not ready to let down their guard — and they say the public shouldn’t be either.

“I’m pumping my brakes,” said Cole, who works at the Fort Washington Medical Center ICU in Prince Georges County, which rescinded its stay-at-home order and started reopening June 1.

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“I think it’s still too early,” he said. “It wouldn’t bother me not to be able to go and sit down in the restaurant for the rest of the year. It wouldn’t bother me at all. I wish more people would take this into consideration.”

President Donald Trump has been urging states to reopen after months of lockdown because of the pandemic and the resulting economic recession.

Although there’s been an overall drop in daily deaths nationwide, several states, including Arizona, Florida, Georgia and Texas, have reported surges in cases after taking steps to reopen.

Overall, Prince Georges County has had about 650 COVID-19 deaths and leads the state of Maryland with more than 17,600 confirmed cases of the virus, according to statistics from Johns Hopkins University.

"So if I had the ability, the ability to go out … I would opt not to only because I, I feel like we’re still in the thick of it all,” said Jonae Cussaac, a registered nurse in the ICU at the Fort Washington Medical Center.

From a safe interior hallway, at the ICU, clinical staff monitor patients’ vital signs on computers and double-check their oxygen equipment through large windows on the doors that seal off the isolated ICU units.

The hospital only had four ICU beds at the start of the pandemic, but recently opened a modular unit on their campus with 16 ICU units that use negative room pressure to isolate COVID positive patients from the rest of the facility.

Cole said he sees patients dying from the virus every day and has trouble comprehending the sudden return of crowded public places where it’s tough to social distance, like the ongoing demonstrations against police brutality, Trump’s first post-quarantine election rally in Oklahoma over the weekend or people just lounging on beaches.

The pandemic is “far from being over,” and the public needs to take it seriously, he said. “They need to follow the guidelines. Social distancing. Wearing a mask when you go out in public, washing your hands constantly.”

There are regular reminders in the ICU about how easily the virus can spread.

For registered nurse Trakina Hogan, it’s the constant donning and doffing of a full set of personal protective equipment required to enter rooms with COVID-positive patients.

“This is a real thing. It’s not fake. It is definitely one that we need to take serious precautions on,” Hogan said. “Keep our mask on, keep our hands washed, and know that we’re here for them.”

And like her colleagues, she’s not ready to venture out to restaurants or other public places. “Continue to do my job at work and going home to my kids. That’s, that’s enough for me. I don’t need to be out in the public just yet,” she said.

Dr. Karen Dixon, medical director of the hospital’s Emergency Department, is wary of the trying times that lie ahead because there is no cure or vaccine to protect against the virus. She described the current state at the hospital as “controlled chaos.”

And while the medical staff has settled into a routine, there’s still an emotional toll from caring for seriously ill coronavirus patients.

“I think the fear of not knowing what to expect kind of sticks with you because you as the bedside nurse, that you’re there to comfort them,” Cussaac said. “No family around, no one able to visit them, so when my patients have that amount of anxiety, just knowing that I’m that person. I have to deliver the comfort. I have to deliver the care.”

One source of motivation for the clinical staff comes from communities around Fort Washington who have been donating free meals to the hospital almost every day. A “We Love Our Nurses” sign sits near the main entrance.

For most people, the new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia and death.