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Messenger: ER doc has one message for St. Louis (stay at home) and another for the government (we need help)
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Messenger: ER doc has one message for St. Louis (stay at home) and another for the government (we need help)

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Coronavirus Testing

Site personnel at the check-in station wait for more vehicles at a BJC HealthCare pre-registration coronavirus testing site in St. Louis on Tuesday, March 24, 2020. In order to get tested patients must receive a referral from a healthcare provider after pre-screening. Photo by Colter Peterson, cpeterson@post-dispatch.com.

The St. Louis Cardinals season is on hold amid the coronavirus pandemic, but that hasn’t stopped an emergency room doctor I know from channeling his inner baseball player.

All across the world, health care workers with inadequate protective gear are putting themselves in harm’s way, trying to treat patients and limit the spread of COVID-19. Some of those health-care workers on the front lines are dying.

In the U.S. — and Missouri — the lack of protective masks and gowns and other gear is particularly acute. The crisis was highlighted this week by a letter state Rep. Joe Runions, a Kansas City-area Democrat who is hospitalized with the virus, sent to Gov. Mike Parson.

“A top concern of my doctors at St. Joseph Hospital in Kansas City, who have asked me to seek your assistance, is the possibility they will run out of vital supplies, especially personal protective equipment,” Runions wrote. “Since I am in isolation, every time a doctor or nurse comes in to check on me, they must put on all manner of gear to protect themselves. However, stocks of that equipment are rapidly running low, and doctors are deeply concerned about whether those stocks will be replenished fast enough to keep up with demand.”

The problem is the same in St. Louis, and all over Missouri, says my ER doc friend. He asked that I not use his name because he had not sought permission from his corporate bosses to speak to me.

I had emailed him to ask what it’s like on the front lines, where health care workers are putting their lives at risk during this pandemic, knowing full well that some of them will end up with COVID-19, and some might die.

He offered a baseball analogy.

“I have decided to make this viral illness a game, and in my mind, I am in the role of a batsman/hitter for a Major League Baseball team,” he emailed me back. “To be made ill by corona is the analog of being a batsman hit by a pitch. With each patient whom I treat, I am going up to the plate to try to get a hit (provide proper medical care) after I meet each patient. I can do the equivalent of a batsman ducking out of the way of an errant pitch (which threatens the batter harm) by trying to get out of corona's way, by using good hand washing, gowning, gloving up and using a proper mask, etc.”

A Major League Baseball hitter, of course, goes to the plate with the proper equipment. These days, some hitters are decked out in full armor, with shin and ankle guards, elbow guards, helmets, of course, and their uniform.

The traditional uniform of an ER doc, the ubiquitous white lab coat or blue scrubs, doesn’t provide anywhere near enough protection against COVID-19.

It’s why every day, medical officials — from hospital administrators to physicians’ groups — are seeking to increase the pressure on elected officials — Parson in Missouri, and President Donald Trump, nationally — to speed up the delivery of much-needed coronavirus tests, protective masks and gowns, and ventilators.

On Monday, the Missouri State Medical Association urged Parson to issue a “shelter-in-place” order to slow the spread of COVID-19.

“If things progress as is,” they wrote, “COVID-19 patients will deplete the state’s available hospital beds, ventilators, and precious personal protection equipment. Any additional time without a ‘shelter-in-place’ requirement wastes crucial healthcare resources, including manpower.”

The advice parallels what the ER doc told me, urging everybody in the St. Louis region to take social distancing orders seriously. And if you do come down with what seems to be coronavirus, but your symptoms are relatively mild, he says, save the hospital beds for those who are truly short of breath and need life-saving care.

It provides a certain comfort to know that even with a shortage of proper equipment, the nurses and docs who make up the life-saving teams at hospitals across the country are willing to step into the batter’s box to protect the rest of us from harm.

“In medical care in times like these, if I am preoccupied by the possibility of becoming infected, my effectiveness in diagnosing and comforting patients suffers,” my doctor friend told me. “I can't enter my work area and be effective if I believe I have no way to avoid becoming infected by the virus. I know I might (or might not) get hit by the coronavirus, but hopefully if I get hit, it won't be the equivalent of a beanball and then I can get back in the game soon.”

Stay in the game, doc. The rest of us are sitting in the stands — 6 feet apart — hoping for a home run.


• Read about retail stores in the region that are cutting hours or closing due to the coronavirus.

• Read the list of area restaurants that are closing, switching to carryout or otherwise adjusting due to the coronavirus.

• Area events canceled or postponed

• Read the list of canceled sports events.

• COVID-19 cases in Missouri by county

• COVID-19 cases in the United States

• CDC fact sheet: Prevention and treatment

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