'People are willing to play Russian roulette with their family’s lives': Doctor slams behavior in US

As coronavirus cases continue to climb in dozens of U.S. states, an emergency medicine doctor in Arizona described the “devastating” situation in hospitals and the dire toll the pandemic has taken on health care workers, who are being stretched to their limits.

“We intubated a 26-year-old this last week. We had three members of one family in an ICU. It’s devastating. It feels like people are willing to play Russian roulette with their family’s lives,” said Dr. Brad Dreifuss, an emergency physician and public health specialist in Tucson, Arizona.

The country began the month of July with cases climbing in 40 states and reported its three highest daily case totals since the pandemic began in the spring, according to data compiled by the New York Times.

The surge in new cases, including in states like Arizona, Florida, Texas and California, has been blamed in part on Americans not wearing masks or obeying other social-distancing rules. The rising cases has prompted some governors to halt the reopening of businesses or to order others to re-close.

People, some with a mask and others without, walk along the Venice Boardwalk on July 5, 2020 in Venice, California. (Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

“We have interventions that reduce spread from one person to another, like masking and physical distancing. I don’t understand why people risk infecting their loved ones with a potentially deadly disease, a disease we know has long-term health effects for those who survive it,” Dreifuss said, adding that even asymptomatic people can suffer from reduced lung function.

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On Monday, Dreifuss’ state of Arizona crossed an alarming milestone in the pandemic, becoming the eighth state to surpass more than 100,000 cases. State health officials said more than half of the reported COVID-19 cases are in people younger than 44.

Additionally, officials said last week that 89% of Arizona’s ICU beds were full.

“We have had patients backed up into the Emergency Department, waiting for a bed to open in the ICU, but all the beds were full or there wasn’t enough staff available to care for the patients,” Dreifuss said, who works as the director of rural and global emergency medicine programs at the University of Arizona College of Medicine. 

“Efforts are being made to open overflow units and add additional bed capacity, but even if we add spaces to put sick people, our staff is still stretched thin,” he added.

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Dreifuss has been living apart from his wife and daughter for months to prevent infecting them. He recently penned a poignant op-ed for the New York Times describing how close health care workers are to “breaking” amid staffing shortages that have plagued the industry years before the novel coronavirus.

Dreifuss said further movement toward a corporate, for-profit health care model over the past two decades in the U.S. has resulted in a lack of preparedness in the face of COVID-19.

“Staffing decisions have been made with an eye to maximizing a profit margin by minimizing the size of the health care workforce. As a result, we have a health care workforce that is already strained, working at unsustainable levels of intensity with limited staffing resources in the name of ‘productivity.’ Add COVID-19 to that situation and you have a recipe for disaster,” he said.

The strain on front-line workers led to the formation of a Tucson-based program called HCW Hosted, spearheaded by Dreifuss and other health care professionals. The coalition aims to help health care workers find suitable housing to isolate from their families and provide emotional support, among other initiatives.

“We have a Veteran’s Affairs department at the highest levels of government to support our military and military families,” Dreifuss said. “Why should healthcare workers and their families be left unsupported when they risk their lives and health in the battle against a pandemic disease, like COVID-19?”

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On the heels of the Fourth of July, Dreifuss said the country needs to unify around the “patriotic project” of decreasing the spread of COVID-19 — calling protective measures such as wearing a mask and keeping physical distance “patriotic acts.” 

Dreifuss is also among a number of public health officials calling for a more effective strategy as a nation to test, contact trace and quarantine.

“In countries around the world where mask-wearing is seen as patriotic, they aren’t seeing the same kind of economic and human toll that we are in the United States,” Dreifuss said. “Frankly, by resisting masks and physical distancing, we are weakening America.”

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This story was reported from Cincinnati.