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Amid COVID-19 Upswing, El Paso, Texas, Doctor Says ICU Is 'Surreal' And 'Strange'

Oct 29, 2020
Originally published on October 29, 2020 5:04 pm

A dramatic upswing in COVID-19 cases and positivity rates in El Paso, Texas, has led officials to ask residents to stay at home for two weeks and to impose a mandatory countywide curfew.

Dr. Ogechika Alozie, chief medical officer of the Del Sol Medical Center in El Paso, told NPR's Morning Edition that as you walk through the intensive care unit "it hits you just how surreal and how strange this is."

"A lot of people just assume that when you walk into an ICU, that it'll be loud and the hustle and bustle," Alozie said. "But the nurses and the physicians and the teams are just going about their business."

"We're used to being in the ICU," he continued. "But having this many patients in the ICU, paralyzed and prone, and truly knowing that there's a large number of them that over the course of time are going to be added to that human tragedy count is really unsettling."

This week, Texas has seen an average of 6,122 new cases per day, up from 4,149 two weeks ago. Since the beginning of the pandemic, at least 911,835 people in Texas have tested positive and 18,162 people have died from the virus, making it the state with the second-highest number of coronavirus cases in the country, as of Oct. 29.

In his statement ordering the curfew, El Paso County Judge Ricardo Samaniego said that there has been a 160% increase in the positivity rate and a 300% increase in hospitalizations in the last three weeks.

In excerpts from his interview, Alozie, who is also co-chair of the El Paso COVID-19 task force, discusses the surge in cases, the patients who are struggling and what the local response has been.

Is there a patient or a certain story that stands out to you in recent days that you just can't get out of your mind?

The one that haunts me the most, I think, is something that, for us, happened over the weekend. One of the nurses was trying to get a patient settled and told me as she was breaking down — because the toll is a lot — about this 50-year-old gentleman that had come in, had been engaged in a family gathering and was now in our ICU struggling for breath. And before they intubated him, he said, "Hey, can I have a cup of Sprite?" And they were giving him the Sprite, knowing that this very well could be his last cup of Sprite that he'll ever have because he was really sick. And so I think for me, that's been the one that had punched me in the gut the most.

It sounds like you saw this coming — the potential of a second spike — but didn't think it would happen this early in the year. Why do you think we're seeing this spike now?

From an [epidemiological] standpoint, infectious disease standpoint, understanding the dynamics of the virus, it was always expected that the fall would be a troublesome time. I think for our community, it sort of caught us by surprise. We had struggled through the July, August time period. We had gone down. We had positivity rates as low as 4.5% early in September, and the city was really rejoicing over that. And I think what happened is that as a community, we let down our guard. And whether parts of it is Juárez, [Mexico], which is our neighbor sister city, is experiencing the same spike, and traffic to Juárez is only down about 25% to 30% year over year. I think multigenerational homes that we have, a lot of family gatherings, and if you look sort of globally at the population dynamics for El Paso, one of our ZIP codes, 79938, is actually one of the most populous ZIP codes in America. And that layer on top, just a city that has some health care, comorbid conditions, specifically diabetes, that just make combating [the] coronavirus difficult.

There is a curfew now. People are being told to stay home for the next few weeks. What is your advice to residents of your community in the coming days and weeks?

We as a community are going to need to find a way to get through this. I understand the discourse that has been around mask versus no mask, [and] stay at home versus not stay at home. But at the end of the day ... politics and policy are not going to save a community. The individuals in the community have to do the due diligence and really take care of themselves and their families to get through this. I implore everybody: If you don't need to go out, stay at home.

: 10/29/20

A previous version of this Web story said that Texas is the state with the most COVID-19 deaths since the pandemic began. In fact, New York state has had the most deaths.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

This week, we have been hearing from health care workers in parts of the country hard-hit by a new surge of coronavirus cases. We spoke to an ER doctor in rural Wisconsin.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

JEFFREY POTHOF: We've got more COVID patients in our hospital than we've ever had.

GREENE: Yesterday, we heard from the top health official in Illinois.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

NGOZI EZIKE: The mixed messaging has not helped public health cause at all. And the desire by people to believe in things which are comforting but not true is incredibly strong right now.

GREENE: Today we go to Texas. El Paso County is so badly hit right now that officials have asked residents to stay home for two weeks except for essential needs. And they have imposed a 10:00 p.m. curfew. Dr. Ogechika Alozie is with us now. He is chief medical officer of the Del Sol Medical Center in El Paso, Texas, also co-chair of the El Paso COVID Task Force. Doctor, thank you for taking the time for us today.

OGECHIKA ALOZIE: Good morning. Thank you very much.

GREENE: Could you start by taking us inside the COVID unit at your hospital and what it feels like in this moment?

ALOZIE: I think one of the words that I will use to describe it best is surreal. And I said one word which is probably too eerie. A lot of people just assume that when you walk into an ICU that it'll be loud and hustle and bustle. But, you know, the nurses and the physicians and the teams, they're just going about their business. And so as you walk through it, it just - it hits you just how surreal and how strange this is. I mean, we're used to being in the ICU, but having this many patients in the ICU paralyzed and prone and truly knowing that there's a large number of them that over the course of time are going to be added to that human tragedy count is really unsettling.

GREENE: Wow. Is there like a patient or a certain story that stands out to you in recent days, that you just can't get out of your mind?

ALOZIE: Yeah. I think the one that haunts me the most, I think, is something that for us happened over the weekend. One of the nurses was trying to get a patient settled and, you know, told me that she was sort of breaking down because the toll is a lot about this 50-year-old gentleman that had come in, had been engaged in a family gathering and was now in our ICU struggling for breath. And before they intubated him, he said, hey, can I have a cup of Sprite? And they were giving him the Sprite knowing that this very well could be his last cup of Sprite that he'll ever have because he was really sick. And so I think, for me, that's been the one that had punched me in the gut the most.

GREENE: Do we know yet if he made it?

ALOZIE: He's still struggling. He's still keeping up the fight. I mean, a lot of things - anybody that's in our ICU and is that sick, intubated, paralyzed, prone, having a lot of ICU maneuvers. But at this point, it's just a matter of time.

GREENE: It sounds like you saw this coming - the potential of a second spike - but didn't think it would happen this early in the year. Why do you think we're seeing this spike now?

ALOZIE: You know, I think, like you said, a lot of - from an EPI standpoint, infectious disease standpoint, understanding the dynamics of the virus, it was always expected that the fall would be a troublesome time. I think, for our community, it sort of caught us by surprise, right? We had struggled through the July, August times period. We had kind of gone down. We had positivity rates as low as 4.5% early in September. And the city was really sort of rejoicing over that.

And I think what happened is that as a community, we let down our guard. And whether parts of it is Juarez, which is our neighbor, our sister city, is experiencing the same spike. And traffic to Juarez is only down about 25 to 30% year over year. I think multigenerational homes that we have, a lot of family gatherings. And if you sort of look sort of globally at the population dynamics for El Paso, one of our ZIP codes - 79938 - is actually one of the most popular ZIP codes in America. And that on top, you layer on top just a city that has some health care comorbid conditions, specifically diabetes, that just make combating coronavirus difficult.

GREENE: I mentioned that there is a curfew now. People are being told to stay home for the next few weeks. What is your advice to to residents of your community in coming days and weeks?

ALOZIE: Yeah. I've said consistently that we as a community are going to need to find a way to get through this. I understand the sort of the discourse that has been around mask versus no mask, stay at home versus not stay at home. But at the end of the day, I've said this multiple times, politics and policy are not going to save a community. The individuals in the community have to do the due diligence and really take care of themselves and their families to get through this. And so I implore everybody, if you don't need to go out, stay at home.

GREENE: We've been checking in on some of the communities that are being hit hardest by this new COVID outbreak around the United States. This morning in El Paso, Dr. Ogechika Alozie, chief medical officer of Del Sol Medical Center in El Paso, Texas. Thank you so, so much.

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