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Houston Nurse Prepares For Rush Of Patients From 3rd U.S. Coronavirus Surge

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

After months of warning from public health officials, it is here - a new surge in coronavirus infections and a rising number of hospitalized COVID patients. The situation in many states is worsening by the day. Wisconsin has opened a field hospital on the state fairgrounds. In Utah, doctors warn they may have to ration care as their ICUs become overwhelmed. El Paso is overwhelmed. Facilities there are struggling to help those sickened by the virus, pushing up the hospitalization rate in Texas. For health care workers in Houston, it's like seeing storm clouds on the horizon again. Avery Taylor is the nurse in charge of the Highly Infectious Disease Unit at Houston Methodist Hospital, and she joins me now.

Welcome to the program.

AVERY TAYLOR: Thank you.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Avery, Houston's coronavirus cases have been really low the last couple of months, which must have been a great relief, given how bad things were in July. What were you seeing then at the height of the last spike?

TAYLOR: Yeah, in July it was tough. We were working on an hour-to-hour basis to make sure we had enough beds in the system and in the city, shuffling patients around to make sure that everyone got the care that they needed. The last few months, we've definitely had a lull. I mean, we still are seeing coronavirus patients every day, but the numbers are significantly different. So we've had a little bit of break so we can kind of regroup and make sure that we're ready for whatever's coming next.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I suspect this is something where you can have an idea of what it's going to be like, but you really don't know how mentally, physically and emotionally taxing it'll be on you and your staff until you're in the thick of it.

TAYLOR: We've done it before. You know, July and August were pretty rough, but I think our staff did a really good job of focusing on what was actually important - patient care, making sure we had good-quality outcomes. We're not looking forward to having to do it again. We really want to encourage people to wear masks and socially distance, but we're ready if we need to be.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Can you tell me what is the hardest thing when you're dealing with these particular cases?

TAYLOR: Yeah, the hardest thing is family anxiety. It's really hard to have a family member in the hospital. It's even harder when you can't see them, when your only option is Zoom or a telephone call or FaceTime. Not being able to support them is really challenging.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I'm wondering what you might have learned throughout this pandemic.

TAYLOR: Steroids have made a huge difference for our patients and for their outcomes. And then self-proning has been really helpful for our patients - so patients who are on as much oxygen as we can get them on, are already starting on steroid treatment, are doing some of the other experimental things. And we're trying to keep them off the ventilator. Having them flip on their stomachs and do some tummy time has seemed to make some difference for patients. And we've been able to kind of stay away from having to intubate by using that technique, and so that's been great.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Can you just take me in to the place where you work? I imagine it must be very frightening for patients to all of a sudden find themselves in your care. I think most people don't imagine that they could end up in the hospital with COVID.

TAYLOR: Yeah, it's a very isolating experience. So not only are you not allowed to have visitors - you can't have family - but everyone who walks into your room is wearing a mask or is wearing a PAPR, which is this hood with positive air. So you don't see anyone's face. You don't know what they look like. It's very, very disorienting. So we have tried to make our unit as normal as possible. So we're still seeing patients on an hourly basis. We really trust the protective gear we're using, so we're not limiting the time that we're going into rooms. We're trying to be present as much as we can.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Avery, I don't want to stray too much into the political but, you know, there have been some comments by President Trump that doctors are taking advantage of this - that they're misidentifying the causes of death. And I'm wondering how it makes you feel that this virus has been politicized in this way.

TAYLOR: Sure. It's really disappointing. So in March, health care workers were the heroes of the country. And in July, somehow, we were the front line of some misinformation campaign. So this is not something you come in to do because it's glamorous. Nursing is not sexy. We're here to take care of patients, and we're going to keep doing that regardless of what's in the media or what's in politics, but it is disheartening.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What are you doing to take care of yourself? - because I imagine that this is very hard on you and on your family.

TAYLOR: Yeah, that's - thank you for asking that - gardening, spending time with my kids. I've actually - I'm a reader, so I've read a lot. The - probably the most therapeutic thing I've read this summer has been "A History Of The Great Pandemic" (ph) about the 1918 flu. And that sounds kind of morbid, but many people died. It was very challenging for the health care system, but then it was over. And so reminding myself that this is a season and we will get through it and life will look different soon has been really healthy for me.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Avery Taylor is the nurse in charge of the Highly Infectious Disease Unit at Houston Methodist Hospital.

Thank you very much, and please stay safe.

TAYLOR: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.