Physician, Emergency Department
CPMC hospital system
San Francisco, CA

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This essay is part of our new series, Flattened By the Curve, which features the voices of doctors, nurses, healthcare workers, and others on the front lines against COVID-19. For information on how to submit, click here.

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By late February in San Francisco, we were starting to wonder, what about this guy? He’s been coughing for two weeks and antibiotics don’t seem to be helping, does he have coronavirus? Or this one, he’s had a fever for ten days and says his job is to sit in a small office at a tech company and have people travel from all over the world to tell him what they do. Maybe he has it? Or what about this lady, not coughing, but just got off a plane from China and definitely doesn’t feel good. But the answer from the Dept of Public health was the same “no, doesn’t meet testing criteria, tell her to just try not to get anyone else sick.”

By early March, the ER waiting room had 20 people with coughs, but they didn’t meet the criteria either.

Finally, around March 10th, we had tests, we started testing! And guess what? Lots of people had it. The construction worker, the bartender, the nurse, and the guy just sitting there talking to me while his chest x-ray looks like crap and his oxygen saturation was abysmal. They all had coronavirus. At which point San Francisco told everyone to just stay the fuck home already.

And now… nothing. This is what happens when you cancel all the bar fights, and bike crashes, the food allergies, and manage to convince everyone to keep all of their novel coronaviruses and all of their not-so-novel-just-the-annoying-snot-everywhere-coughing-that-keeps-you-up-all-night old school coronaviruses to themselves.

Now we’re all ready, sort of. We have our masks and our goggles and our 3D printed shields that the friend of a brother of someone sent us, usually our gowns, and occasionally our shoe covers. And we have plenty of coronavirus tests, which apparently work about 70% of the time, which is better than nothing.

So we sit and read about New York and New Jersey, and we feel guilty. Guilty that we see a case here, and case there, and that we actually have time to read. We’re usually running around like maddened chickens telling people high on meth and alcohol to please sir, please, stop urinating on the computer. But we’re not leaving our shifts in tears; we’ve cared for few (but by no means none) of our colleagues, our morgue is just its usual creepy, mostly empty self.

Yet we still take off our clothes in the garage and walk naked into the house and straight into the shower. And we still wonder, what will next winter bring? And are people suffering at home alone with their heart attacks and strokes? How do we assure them it’s okay to come back, we’ll keep them safe, we can help? And, of course, the question that keeps me up all night, if I take off my N95 right now and eat this delicious meal that some beautiful and now struggling restaurant donated, does this increase my chance of orphaning my children?

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Sarah Schaaf is an ER physician in San Francisco. She lives with her husband and two toddlers. She misses having her parents come visit.