An NYC doctor's message to his hometown of Rochester 

I am a physician practicing in New York City. I have kept in touch with friends back home in Rochester through the years, and do so now perhaps more than ever. My conversations with them reveal a great disparity in understanding of the COVID-19 pandemic and what’s happening in parts of our country.

I get questions like, “Is it really that bad in New York City?” and “Can it really affect young people?” and even, “Are people actually dying?” Questions like these largely stem from misinformation — and there is a lot of it out there.

You may have seen me sharing my personal experiences in interviews on NBC News and on my social media accounts. What I share comes from first-hand involvement in treating this disease. I follow the news in Rochester closely, and as the number of infections steadily rise there, I thought it might be helpful to share what we know about the virus so far and what to watch out for.

COVID-19 is a highly virulent and transmissible virus. It is true that cases can be mild with symptoms like fever, cough, and shortness of breath. But we care about every case because any one can progress very quickly to acute respiratory failure. When that happens, patients require a breathing tube and ventilator to survive. A misconception is that young and healthy people are safe from the disease. The best available data shows that to be absolutely false. 
click to enlarge Dr. Jeffrey Le, a Rochester-area native, practices medicine in New York City, the epicenter of coronavirus in the United States. - PHOTO PROVIDED BY DR. JEFFREY LE
  • Dr. Jeffrey Le, a Rochester-area native, practices medicine in New York City, the epicenter of coronavirus in the United States.

Allow me to paint a picture of what my hospital looked like during the moments before we had our first known case. Our hospital was divided into separate units — a cardiology unit, a surgical unit, a medical floor, a psychiatric unit. Now in our hospital we currently have over 350 patients who are COVID-19 positive and most units are now COVID-19 units. We used to leave the doors to patient rooms open. Now they are closed. We used to allow visitors at all hours. Now no visitors are allowed. Healthcare workers used to roam the halls and rooms without wearing masks. Now we wear masks in the corridors at all times and before entering patient rooms we don a N95 respirator mask, a surgical mask on top, goggles, a cap, a gown, and protective coverings for our shoes. Some units even use full body suits for protection.

Due to the sudden spike of cases in NYC, the number of personal protective equipment (PPE) like masks, gowns, and gloves, we actually needed each time to enter every room was greater than the supply that we had at the time. Some of my colleagues around the country reached out to tell me they no longer had masks to wear at the hospital to take care of their patients. The remainder of us have been given masks that we have to reuse. Thanks to the many people who have reached out to donate their personal supplies, we are currently making do. We as a country were also way behind on the number of test kits needed, which severely limited our ability to quickly identify and triage COVID-19 patients. So many different conditions can cause someone to have a cough and to be short of breath. How were we supposed to treat patients for a condition we were not 100 percent sure they had?

It is not fair to say we did not know what was coming. We had plenty of warning from our friends abroad who were dealing with the disease. We had been hearing about what was happening in China, South Korea, Germany, and then Italy. We were well aware of the spike in infection rates and massive shortage of resources needed to treat patients.

I am not sure why we did not take the proper precautions in the beginning. Did we not think the disease would make its way here? Was it hubris, believing we could do a better job than our counterparts abroad?

The emotional toll has been enormous. I have been feeling very stressed and anxious. I come home thinking about my patients, friends, and family. I wonder if everybody is healthy. Several of my fellow physicians developed shortness of breath and had to be admitted to the intensive care unit. They turned out to have COVID-19. Many of us have been tasked with helping patients in crisis, treating a condition we have never seen before. We are still discovering new complexities about this disease every day and are far from knowing all the answers. I have seen patients who are stable and speaking to me one minute, and then crash on me the next minute. I have seen many patients die due to this disease — alone in their rooms, without their loved ones. Having to inform their families over the phone is one of the most heartbreaking things I have ever had to do. 
click to enlarge Dr. Jeffrey Le, a Rochester-area native, practices medicine in New York City, the epicenter of coronavirus in the United States. - PROVIDED BY DR. JEFFREY LE
  • Dr. Jeffrey Le, a Rochester-area native, practices medicine in New York City, the epicenter of coronavirus in the United States.

My colleagues and I implore you to please stay at home. Do not congregate. Continue to practice social distancing of at least six feet. Wear masks when you go outside. Wash your hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. Don’t forget to cover your mouth when you cough or sneeze to help reduce droplet transmission.

I am grateful to have my health and I will continue to do my job and take care of my patients. I wanted to share my story in hopes that it might be useful for you to know what it has been like for those of us on the front lines of the pandemic in New York City.

For my beloved city of Rochester, I hope it never gets this bad. Please continue to stay home and stay safe.

Dr. Jeffrey Le is a board certified physician in internal medicine and a cardiology fellow at Maimonides Medical Center in Brooklyn. He is a graduate of the Rush-Henrietta Central School District and the University of Rochester. He misses Wegmans and garbage plates. Follow him on Instagram and Twitter at @drjeffle.

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