When the Healers Become the Patients...

April 3, 2020

Louisiana's been hit especially hard by the virus, but there's one kind of loss that pains everyone: a nurse. In New Orleans East Hospital, everyone's worst nightmare came true on Tuesday when Larrice Anderson became a victim of the infection she'd been fighting. The mom of two had been working in the ICU, caring for the sickest patients. But being on the front lines of the outbreak requires sacrifice -- and for Larrice, the ultimate one.

Every day, heroes like Larrice are putting their lives at risk. It's why hospital chiefs like Dr. Catherine O'Neal walk around with such terrible dread. "I'm very fearful for my health care workers. When I wake up in the morning, that is my biggest [concern]. Are we keeping them safe?" Because careless people, she points out, "are [still] putting our most vulnerable population -- our health care workers -- at risk."

Dr. O'Neal has seen her share of trauma over the last few days. Watching the state's infections jump 42 percent overnight has been hard, because she knows what it means for her staff at Baton Rouge's Our Lady of the Lake Regional Medical Center. "We've seen a steep acceleration in admissions through the weekend," she told me on "Washington Watch," and at this point, they don't have enough staff to keep adding beds. But, she adds, they're adding them anyway. "We are stretching our personnel, because we have more patients coming through the door... And now, we're starting to see that we don't have the personnel to take care of patients the way we would want to."

And it doesn't help that no one seems to be able to predict when the virus will peak. "We don't know," she admitted when I asked for her best guess. "And the reason why -- and [it's] very frustrating -- is that we continue to see an escalation in numbers. So we haven't seen the curve start to flatten out, and until we see that with reliability, I have to tell you, we're headed up. And those are scary numbers to talk about. By the end of the month, the projections don't look good. And I agree with the governor. We fully support the mandate to stay home until we start to see flattening of the curve. We still have to use social distancing as our defense."

Of course, the big debate now is whether people should wear masks when they go out in public. For Dr. O'Neal's part, the real question is whether people should go out in public at all. "We watch a lot of people wear masks in our business... [But] we see a lot of misuse of the masks. People move it around on their face. They touch it. They contaminate it. And I'm concerned that the universal masking discussion will overshadow how important it is for people to stay home, which is really the best defense -- social distancing. Masks may offer a layer of protection, but that layer means that people are near someone. And that's what we don't want right now."

If anyone should be helping amplify that advice, it's local pastors, and most are, but a few are not. One in particular has insisted on holding church services, because he thinks that if people can go to Walmart, then they should be allowed to go to church. But as far as Catherine is concerned, those are two entirely different things. "I'm a churchgoer," she said, "and I am a Walmart shopper. And I can tell you that I treat both very differently. Going to the store these days is a humble experience where I am very quick, and I even stand back from the person checking me out. I wash my hands before I go, and I wash them on the way out." We have to eat. But physically going to church right now, she warned, could be a death sentence. She brought up the choir in Washington State who met for practice in early March and used every possible precaution. And still, 45 of the 60 members tested positive. Two even died.

"So we know that singing and hugging and being near each other, which are things we do at church and we love, actually spread COVID rapidly, whereas going to the grocery store, you can still social distance... But right now, our ability to receive our religion online is amazing. And our pastors are doing a great job and our church is doing a great job. And I hope that we can continue to be responsible in those ways."

After all, lives -- like hers and so many others -- depend on it.