Medical staff stretched to the limit in Covid-19 fight

By Duong Nga   May 18, 2021 | 09:00 am GMT+7
Medical staff stretched to the limit in Covid-19 fight
Health workers in Bac Ninh's Tien Du District take a short nap after a white night, May 14 2021. Photo courtesy of Tien Du District Medical Center.
In Bac Ninh Province, a current pandemic hotspot, stress, exhaustion and sleep deprivation are the daily lot of its medical workers.

Many work continuously for more than 20 hours a day, collecting samples for Covid-19 testing and performing contact tracing.

It was past 1 a.m. last Friday as technician Nguyen Thi Thuy and more than a dozen colleagues took a nap after performing the second coronavirus tests for nearly 15,000 people in Mao Dien Commune, Thuan Thanh District, now a major novel coronavirus hotspot.

Thuy did not get much rest though. Minutes later, she got the message that the provincial Center for Diseases Control has detected six new positive cases. Thuy tied her hair up, called some colleagues to started the contact tracing process.

After the tracing was done, she set aside her phone and looked up the sky. The morning sun shone bright, momentarily hurting her eyes.

Friday was not an unusual night for Thuy and her colleagues since the outbreak hit the poor commune where locals live mainly on agriculture.

Mao Dien detected its first infection of the new outbreak on May 5 and the number has increased steadily since, prompting local authorities to impose lockdown.

All commune residents, about 15,000, have been tested for Covid-19, with the first test done on the night of May 7.

That evening, 100 medical staff from public and private hospitals in the province were mobilized to take samples of residents for mass testing.

"At that time, I was very worried about not completing the goal, not coordinating with other colleagues smoothly and I feared not being able to manage things stably because of the overcrowding," said Thuy, who has worked for 24 years in the commune.

But when everyone got to work, they quickly figured out how to "communicate" with each other through nametags on their shirts, with their eyes and nods.

It was past 4 a.m. the next day when Thuy's group completed their task. Along with other groups, 10,700 oropharyngeal samples were transported to the provincial CDC for testing.

Medical staff take samples of residents in Mao Dien Commune, Bac Ninh Province, May 7 2021. Photo courtesy of Le Thi Nhung.

Medical staff take samples of residents in Mao Dien Commune, Bac Ninh Province, on the night of May 7, 2021. Photo by Le Thi Nhung.

The exercise was not just tiring, but also frustrating when they were unable to "track down all those who'd come into close contact with confirmed patients or suspected cases." Their hands were sore, the feet tired and throats dry.

On the morning of May 14, her team discovered that a man had visited the Thuan Thanh District medical center, which was related to six positive cases, on May 6.

From morning to noon, four staff members of the team called this man to persuade him to go to a centralized quarantine facility to avoid spreading the virus among the community, but he refused to cooperate.

"He yelled at the medical staff instead," Thuy recalled.

"We were planning to take stronger measures, but early afternoon, he got into a bus and went to the isolation facility. While he showed up eventually, he deliberately made everything difficult, causing us a lot of stress."

As an employee of the Thuan Thanh Districts medical center, Dr Le Thi Nhung was dispatched to help tackle the outbreak in Mao Dien. She said she "had never experienced anything so stressful and exhausting in the past."

Nhung arrived in Mao Dien on May 7. By that night, she had completed collecting samples at this commune health center. At 2 a.m., she was asked to go to the next commune to quickly collect 24 samples from people who'd come into close contact with confirmed Covid-19 patients.

Later, she continued taking samples from people who were still waiting in line at Mao Dien. It was 4:32 a.m. when she took a break.

"After taking a shower, it was 5 a.m. I fell asleep with my hair still wet," she said.

On May 9, Nhung was assigned to transport Covid-19 patients to isolation areas. Under the scorching heat of 36 degrees Celsius, the 43-year-old doctor collapsed suddenly after her sixth trip. Her colleagues quickly took her into a room and removed her protective clothing and mask. She vomited. After lying down for a while, she felt better and was given a glass of ionized alkaline water. Then she got back to work.

Nhung was not the only one who was so exhausted that she fainted that day. A nurse did the same; and the very next day, two other medical staff followed suit.

Chị Nhung ướt sũng người và kiệt sức không thể cởi được bộ đồ bảo hộ, sau đó nôn và ngất đi hôm làm việc 9/5. Ảnh: Nguyễn Hướng.

Dr Le Thi Nhung fainted after working long hours in Bac Ninh Province on May 9, 2021. Photo by Nguyen Huong.

Humor helps

In the rare moments that they are able to rest, the women resort to humor to help handle their back-breaking workload. No one dares to take off their mask and take pictures anymore, one quips, because everyone's face is itchy and full of pimples.

This is not an exaggeration, though. The husband of medical staff Nguyen Thi Huong, working in Mao Dien, couldn't hold back his tears as he said, "In the video call, my wife's face was pale and full of pimples.... Seeing her like that was heart-breaking."

Mao Dien Commune is just two kilometers from their house, but in the past 10 days, the distance has lengthened manifold, and the family does not know when they can reunite.

Health workers in many other Bac Ninh localities are also experiencing similar difficulties. On the evening of May 7, Nguyen Thi Luong, a doctor at the Tien Du District hospital, packed to leave on her mission. She was in tears.

Her bewildered four-year-old son asked: "Why are you crying?"

"I don't know when I'll be back with you," she responded.

When she arrived at the hospital, she and 20 colleagues got into an ambulance and went to Hien Van Commune to take samples for rapid testing from more than 5,000 people.

Covered in a protective suit, her body was soaked with sweat in less than an hour. After spending the whole morning asking for information and taking throat samples from hundreds of people, she was exhausted.

"From midnight to noon the next day, we are able to take off our protective clothing. At that time it feels like we've just climbed up from a swimming pool," said the 30-year-old physician.

"Almost everyone is red faced and red eyed. They are dehydrated and hungry. We have no rice yet to eat, we have boiled eggs to satisfy our hunger," she said. At 3:30 a.m. Luong and colleagues were able to take a short nap.

The Tien Du District Hospital has become a local field hospital in Bac Ninh. Luong and her colleagues were dispatched to all parts of the province to collect samples for testing. Her shift lasts more than 20 hours these days inclusive of short lunch and dinner breaks.

On the evening of May 14, she was transferred to the inner hospital, where she will directly treat 86 Covid patients.

"I just want us to be safe and for the new wave to pass quickly so that we can reunite with our children," she said. Luong's husband is also a doctor at Bac Ninh Lung Hospital who has been mobilized to support the Covid-19 fight.

With no indication as to when the new wave will end, medical staff like Thuy, Nhung and Luong are not going by clocks. Any minute they can rest, they lie on the ground, too tired to bother about its cleanliness.

Since the new wave broke out on April 27, Vietnam has reported 1,340 new Covid-19 cases in 28 cities and provinces. Of these, 290 are in Bac Ninh, home to foreign-invested firms and major industrial parks.

Doctor Nguyen Thi Thuy Duong, chairwoman of the Bac Ninh Young Doctors Association, said: "70 percent of the province's health workers are female and many of them have young children. Working so hard under such high pressure, it is not surprising that several have fainted out of exhaustion.

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