Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Before You Panic About the Pandemic

It seemed like a good idea at the time.

A couple of days ago, my boss called to see if I would be willing to work a few extra hours this week because the ER was short staffed. Against my first instinct, which is always to say “No”, I agreed and told her I would work the four hour slot that was open today. Imagine my surprise as I walked in and saw my co-workers wearing masks – the ones we use to prevent us from inhaling any number of viruses – and looking for all the world like they would rather be anywhere else.

One girl quickly pulled down her mask to talk. “Did you hear about the positive cases of Swine Flu?" Her face was tense and I knew there was going to be a good story – I just wasn't sure I wanted to hear it. She told me that in my home state today the CDC had confirmed 3 cases of Swine Flu (2 of those 3 coming through our hospital) and that now seemingly everyone in the area who had a cough or fever was coming to the ER to get checked out. Earlier (I missed it because I don't have TV) the governor had held a press conference to discuss the 3 confirmed cases and warned that more were certain to follow. Now, individuals were scared and coming to the ER; primary care providers were also getting into the act and sending their patients to us so we could test them.

To make matters worse, hospital personnel who had any contact with the confirmed cases in our facility were also being sent to us for evaluation – some from work still in scrubs. We were called by news crews and reporters; the regional Emergency Medical Services office called to see if the rumor was true that we had closed (really - I cannot make this stuff up). The phone never stopped ringing.

By 6:00PM I was wishing I had not been such a team player and agreed to work the shift.

I don't know how many flu swabs we did or even how many people we saw, because my 4 hours there were a complete blur. I went over the same instructions with patients, answering as best I could their questions and trying to allay their fears of certain and impending death from Swine Flu. I talked to our infection control officer, the CDC and any number of potential patients on the phone. Now, as I sit here, my feet tired and my frustrations high, I am happy it has become someone else's problem. Now, I am happy that I am not going back to that nightmare tomorrow.

At 6:45 PM I was notified that 1 of the positive 3 cases was a mistake. My understanding is that the other 2 confirmed cases are still actually pending confirmation. Someone must have jumped the gun. The result of that little mistake was chaos in my ER for the better part of the day.

What I wanted to do all afternoon was tell people, "Look, just go home. You don't have to worry. Most of you don't even appear to be ill. We only want REALLY sick people in here. The rest of you are just risking exposure to something you don't currently have." But that would never fly. People don't think about things like prevention when they are already convinced they have something. And all of our patients today just "knew" they had the Swine Flu. They knew all about it because they saw it on TV. Good for them.

As for me, the best thing I could think to do was to write this and pass along some advice to those interested. Here's the basics folks:

1. Don't panic - I cannot stress this enough
2. Wash your hands after you touch things in public areas and before you touch your face
3. Cover your mouth and nose when you cough or sneeze
4. Take it easy – rest when you are sick
5. Stay home from work or school so you don't become a vector of disease
6. Don't call the ER and ask us to tell you if we think you have Swine Flu – we have no idea and can't diagnose people over the phone

The CDC has good information on their site about the Swine Flu. Read it and help to limit the spread of the virus.

Oh, and don't come to the ER looking for me. I will be off for the next several days. And just to make sure I don't do anything stupid, I'm not answering any calls from my boss.


  1. I was glad to no longer being working in the ED when the swine flu arrived. I knew it would be nuts.

  2. Country Girl -

    The fun is just starting. It's going to be interesting for a while until people realize a diagnosis does not equate to instant death.

    As usual, a lot of information is difficult to be certain about. The CDC has fewer verified cases on their books than states claim. There's a lag time to ID the virus in Atlanta, but until it's verified there, it's not considered (nor should it be) positive.

    Add media hype, varying numbers of infections and the ignorance of most people about just how severe this strain is and you get a panic of the population. Here's to hoping it starts to settle down quickly.