Critical Care Commentary

COVID-19: Just a virus, right?


My first exposure to the notion of scarce resources was in medical school. I had to discuss the ethical principles behind the allocation of organs for transplantation, specifically livers and the required abstinence from alcohol ... but this was just an exercise, right?

Dr. Emily Fridenmaker, University of Kentucky, Lexington

Dr. Emily Fridenmaker

A few years later, during residency, I heard the anecdotes from one of my internal medicine attendings about the time he spent in Europe as a visiting geriatrics fellow in the 1970s. The health-care districts in the region would be allotted an annual budget, and it was up to those districts how to best allocate those resources to meet, to the best of their abilities, the health-care needs of their population. He vividly recalled that a patient he cared for, an individual over 65 in need of renal replacement therapy for a reversible condition, who was not offered such therapy despite the clear benefit. There was a finite amount of resources, and those resources were thought to be better spent on public health measures like vaccination ... but that was on another continent and in another era, right?

I remember when I first heard of an outbreak of viral pneumonia in China in January of this year. As someone prone to anxiety, my first strategy was to put my head in the sand and wait it out. This strategy didn’t last very long – within a couple of weeks, there were confirmed cases in the United States. It was now apparent that this virus was not going to be contained. In an impressively short amount of time, SARS-CoV 2 has infected over 3.5 million individuals and killed almost a quarter million people worldwide. In the United States, we have seen almost 1.2 million cases and lost over 68 thousand lives. This pandemic has managed to devastate multiple countries, health care systems, and economies. It has also challenged every physician’s ideas of beneficence and justice ... but it’s just a virus, right?

Beneficence, the principle of medical ethics regarding acting in the patient’s best interest, had always seemed to me to be a no-brainer. Not like autonomy, which can get sticky, or justice, which I really had not had to consider much prior to 2020. Of course, I would always do what was best for my patient, I thought, why wouldn’t I?

Justice, the principle that deals with the distribution of scarce health-care resources, is the wrench that has been thrown into the beneficence works in the age of COVID-19. In a country and an era in which I had not dreamed we would ever have to think about how to support multiple people with one ventilator, we have had to do just that (“Joint Statement on Multiple Patients per Ventilator,” CHEST News, Mar 27, 2020). Things that I have taken for granted through all of my training are now worth their weight in gold—from sedative drips and inhalers down to videolaryngoscopy blades and face masks. I can’t just do what is best for my patient because sometimes what is best for my patient is not what is best for my next patient, what is best for my team, or even what is best for me and for my family. COVID-19 has reminded us of the uncomfortable truth that when contemplating justice, the patient in front of us is not the only person we have to consider.

Early on, before things in the United States had surged, I asked the twitter community what I thought would be a hypothetical question: “An employee needs to urgently help a COVID-19 patient. There is no appropriate PPE available due to shortage. What should happen?”

Like the idea of splitting ventilators, it was a thought I had never considered pre-COVID-19. Our instinct as physicians, especially as critical care physicians, is to intervene in emergency situations as quickly as possible. The extensive PPE required to manage COVID-19 patients has slowed that process, but, as many institutions are reaching the ends of their PPE stores, our safety is now placed at odds with that of our patient’s. To stay back violates what we feel is our duty to our patients, to go in violates our duty to ourselves, to our families, and to the rest of our patients. To care adequately for your patient is to put yourself at risk (and vice-versa), and this is a problem that I don’t think we have an answer for.

COVID-19 threatens many good and noble things, and what is worse, it directly puts them at odds with one another. They are paired sliding scales, where more of one means less of the other. If I have enough masks, it means my colleague probably doesn’t. If we have enough ventilators, it means another city doesn’t. If I get a break to be with my family, it means someone else is having to leave theirs to tend to patients who are sicker, lonelier, and more numerous than in any other time in recent memory.

And if these situations and resource limitations don’t provide enough moral injury for health-care workers, there are some specifics of humanity’s response to the pandemic that are exceptionally hurtful.

We as a country had notice, which was squandered. Instead of caution and preparation, we saw the powers that be make light of the serious situation most scientists and clinicians warned was coming. Instead of efforts to find or create PPE, we saw accusations against us of misuse and waste (“Trump comments about hospital mask thefts spark backlash from doctors,” Newsweek, March 30, 2020). Instead of support, we saw our altruism taken advantage of and used against us in unsafe and unfair situations. We have seen physicians in training and full-fledged attendings alike treated unfairly by their supervisors, instead of protected. Every instance of anti-science opinion or action from our friends and families that we once tolerated now feels like a personal affront, as these directly increase our risk and our immediate family’s risk of contracting the illness. We are being touted as heroes and angels, but really, we’re afraid—afraid of our patients, afraid of illness, afraid for our families, and afraid of jobs that we used to love. We don’t want to be praised; we just want to work our regular jobs safely and with adequate support.

I don’t know what health care looks like at the end of all of this. Relationships between physicians and health-care administrations were strained before the pandemic, to say the least. How can health-care workers just go back to business as usual, working for entities that were so ill-prepared, and, in many cases, calloused toward the concerns of their employees?

COVID-19 has revealed the fragility of our health-care system, our public health capabilities, and our economy. The pandemic has forced us to finally acknowledge something that has been true all along—our resources are finite, and tension exists between what is right and what is profitable, and between what is just and what is easy.

But it’s just a virus, right?

Dr. Fridenmaker is a Pulmonary and Critical Care Fellow at the University of Kentucky, Lexington.

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