New York City Nurse Braces for New Covid-19 Surge. ‘Nobody Wants to Do it Again.’ – The Wall Street Journal

About six weeks ago, Erin Smith got the sinking feeling that a new surge of Covid-19 infections had hit New York City.

The Covid-19 unit that she oversees at Manhattan’s Lenox Hill Hospital was full, with very sick patients, including some who died. It stayed that way for two to three weeks before almost emptying. Ms. Smith, a 39-year-old nurse manager, said she estimates it will be full again the first week of December.

The mood inside the hospital is anxious, but hopeful, she said, but a potential repeat of the experience in March and April, when Covid-19 first ripped through the city, is petrifying.

“It was a hella six months,” said Ms. Smith. “Nobody wants to do it again.”

Erin Smith, who oversees the Covid-19 unit at Lenox Hill, said she expects the unit will be full of patients again the first week of December.

Photo: Lee S. Weissman/Northwell Health

New cases of Covid-19 are rising in New York City as well as the number of people requiring hospitalization.

Public-health experts and health-care executives say they believe the city’s second surge of Covid-19 cases won’t be as bad as the first, with fewer people becoming sick and fewer deaths. Hospital systems are now more prepared and better able to care for patients through known treatment protocols, they say.

Hospitals, however, can’t rely on the army of traveling nurses and doctors who came to New York last time. And unlike the spring, hospitals are planning to keep up general medicine and elective procedures while caring for Covid-19 patients.

Many health-care workers are also suffering from post-traumatic-stress disorder, and worker burnout is a concern among hospital executives from New York City health systems. Some nurses represented by the New York State Nurses Association have raised concerns about staffing and the availability of personal protective equipment at some hospitals. Nurses at Albany Medical Center and Montefiore New Rochelle Hospital, for example, have plans to walk off the job Dec. 1.

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Ms. Smith said she hasn’t had to worry about the availability of personal protective equipment and largely feels supported by Northwell Health, the health-care system that operates Lenox Hill. Eileen Toback of the New York Professional Nurses Union, which represents staff nurses at Lenox Hill, said the system had a good stock of personal protective equipment and has offered mental-health services.

Ms. Smith arrived at Lenox Hill nine years ago. The oldest of six in an Irish-Italian family and the daughter of a nurse, Ms. Smith initially set out to work in broadcast journalism. She said she passed on a job from a major news organization, thinking another job would materialize. It didn’t.

Ms. Smith is part of a team trained to talk to and care for colleagues during times of stress or trauma.

Photo: Melissa Bunni Elian for The Wall Street Journal

To pay the bills, she said she took an administrative job at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. There, Ms. Smith said, colleagues noted her gentle manner with patients, and urged her to pursue a career in nursing. She said she told colleagues, “I don’t do bodily fluids.”

And then one day, recalled Ms. Smith, a man asked to use her desk phone. He became woozy and, as she tried to help him find a place to lay down, he vomited all over her. All she could think to do was to reassure the man. After some weeks of introspection, she decided to go to nursing school and enrolled in 2009.

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“This man changed my life and I never got his name,” said Ms. Smith.

Diane Stover, a pulmonologist at Memorial Sloan Kettering, said nursing was an ideal avenue for Ms. Smith and one she encouraged.

“She was so interested in helping patients in any way she could,” said Dr. Stover. “She just went the extra mile.”

Ms. Smith started out in a medical-surgical unit at Lenox Hill. When Covid-19 hit, she was leading the hospital’s behavioral-health unit with some 40 people. That unit was converted to care for Covid-19 patients, with Ms. Smith taking over the management. This past week, she was told that she will likely return to her role in behavioral health in January, she said.

Erin Smith, center, said the mood inside the hospital is anxious, but hopeful.

Photo: LEE S.WEISSMAN/Northwell Health

The skills needed to care for psychiatry patients have been relevant during Covid-19, said Ms. Smith. Patients are isolated, vulnerable and scared, and families of those patients are scared and sad, she said. Colleagues, too, need more emotional support. Ms. Smith is part of a team at the hospital trained to talk to and care for colleagues during times of stress or trauma. This can be heavy work, she said, and in therapy she is working on how to practice self-care.

Because of Covid-19, Ms. Smith has returned to her Catholic faith, attending virtual Mass at Church of St. Benedict in the Bronx, where she went to Catholic school and her parents and grandparents worshiped. She starts her shifts with an “Our Father” and a “Hail Mary.”

“In the last nine months I’ve prayed more than I have in the last 20 years,” she said.

Write to Melanie Grayce West at melanie.west@wsj.com

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