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A day on the frontlines of the COVID-19 crisis at small suburban hosptial with no deaths

HOUSTON – The care givers in the COVID-19 unit at United Memorial Medical Center suit up to battle the virus with the same ritual every day.

First a protective, plastic jumper over scrubs. Then protective booties over that. Then comes head protection, a protective gown, two face masks, safety glasses and a face shield. All of that is topped off with a photo of yourself to show patients who is lurking behind all of that protective gear.

Then it’s time for rounds at this small, suburban hospital on Houston’s north side. Dr. Joseph Varon, the hospital’s chief of medicine, leads the team.

The COVID-19 wing is sealed off from the rest of the hospital.

Beyond a plastic curtain, there’s a different, more dangerous world. Coronavirus is literally in the air, and behind it is what most of us never see. The pain behind the case numbers. Patients like 57-year-old Faye Edwards.

“I feel a little ­better than I did a week ago,” Edwards said.

Edwards said she is convinced she contracted the virus in a crowded Houston grocery store last week.

“Stay home. Stay home,” Edwards said. “Stay where you’re safe. Stay where you’re healthy.”

Across the hall is 40-year-old Bianca Gaican’s room. She has nearly recovered now.

“It’s scary," Gaican said. "Something that’s scary and I thought I was going to die, and now that I came this way and got this far, I feel that I don’t ever want it again.”

It can be a devastating disease, capable of destroying a healthy lung in just days.

To treat patients here, Varon is using an experimental drug protocol. A cocktail of vitamins, steroids, and blood thinners. Each patient also gets hydroxychloroquine. The malaria drug touted by President Donald Trump. It’s controversial because there hasn’t been time for extensive testing. Varon said he believes it works.

“We’ve treated over 40-plus patients with this treatment, and we haven’t had a single complication," Varon said.

So far, he said, none of his patients have died.

“This is time of war, no time to double-blind anything," Varon said. "This is working and if it’s working I’m going to keep on doing it.”

Providing that care can take a toll on caregivers. Working 12-hour shifts, that often stretch into days, and the days into weeks.

“We’ve been here endless nights and days, sleeping in here," Chief Nursing Officer Anita Pandley said. "Napping for an hour basically, around the clock to make sure these people are taken care of.”

Sometimes the constant life-and-death struggle just down the hall weighs too heavy.

“The third day I cried with my sister," Nurse Sherron Lovelady said. "I was a little overwhelmed. I didn’t realize how serious it was until I came to the unit.”

What disturbs caregivers now is that while many states like Texas are opening up again, new infections are not declining.

“The number of admissions that we have just in the last two weeks have pretty much doubled," Varon said.

So as a precaution, the hospital has opened a second coronavirus wing, just in case.

Varon said he believes those beds will be needed after seeing the mass violation of social districting rules on Galveston Island last weekend. He calls it irresponsible.

“The only thing they’re doing is they are prolonging what we’re going through,” Varon said. “We’re going to have a serious health care crisis in the months to follow unless people respect these requests for social distancing.”

His prediction is backed up by new estimates from the Federal Emergency Management Agency as reported by the New York Times -- the number of new COVID-19 cases will climb 87% by the end of May.

Varon’s drug protocol, while untested in double-blind studies, is still being used by four other doctors in other parts of the country. They’ve set up a registry to pool their data to help determine exactly how effective it is.