Of the many occupations on the front lines of the battle against COVID-19, health care workers are among the most endangered – and, according to Ahwatukee physician Dr. Joy G. Wolfe, among the most frustrated.
For more than a week, the longtime family medicine practitioner has taken to social media to express her frustration with public health officials, hospitals and even some of her peers and members of the general public who take COVID-19 lightly and fail to maintain social distancing.
In one of her most recent postings, she said Banner Health is disciplining nurses for wearing protective masks – an allegation that Banner spokeswoman Nancy Neff said “has been reported for false information.”
“It is of the upmost importance to us that we provide a safe and secure environment for our health care workers,” Neff said. “They are the most valuable resource for our community during the COVID-19 outbreak, and we are dedicated to keeping them healthy.
“We are closely monitoring our stock of equipment and supplies, which include
personal protective equipment for health care workers to safely engage with patients,” Neff said.
But Wolfe isn’t backing down on that charge – or her accusations of laxity and poor planning among public health officials at all levels of government.
The pandemic is already affecting Wolfe’s practice.
She can’t see new or regular patients who complain of fever or respiratory problems – key symptoms of the virus – and is frustrated by the lack of facilities with adequate capabilities to treat them.
“Even when a patient comes in for what doesn’t appear to be a sick visit, they have a designated area that’s taped off where they need to stand to keep a social distance,” she explained.
“A medical assistant comes up, puts a mask on the patient, checks their temperature and their oxygen levels, and then they never leave them out in the waiting room anymore,” she continued. “They bring them back into a room where they can fill out the paperwork or whatever else needs to be done.”
“We can’t even see half the number of patients we saw before, so trying to pay rent and bills, whether in the office or out is getting to be a difficult thing these days.”
Wolfe said she is frustrated as well by the difficulty in getting protective gear since someone who is infected can go without displaying symptoms for a week.
“We have some cheap masks that we were able to get from CVS because we can’t get even good medical grade quality,” Wolfe complained. “None of that is available to us.”
Her posts have been alarming enough that some people have criticized her, telling her to stop “scaring them.”
But far more are applauding Wolfe.
“I’m getting all sorts of messages saying ‘thank you for speaking the truth,’” she said.
Hospital workers in particular have been quietly thanking her, Wolfe said, although they fear for the loss of their jobs to openly vouch for her credibility.
“I’m glad if somebody doesn’t have this problem,” she said. “That’s wonderful. Good for them. But I have enough other folks that are saying, ‘No, you’re exactly right. Here’s what we’ve experienced.’”
Wolfe’s initial salvo last week targeted the lack of testing kits – or even places where people can get a test.
In a press conference early last week, state Health Services Director Dr. Cara Christ said people need a doctor’s order for a test and that “mass collection sites” for drive-through swabs would be set up at hospitals.
Health Services spokesperson Chris Minnick said people who show up at those sites “would still be screened and have to be symptomatic for them to get the test.”
Minnick said Christ has issued a standing order that “covers testing for everybody there once it’s determined that that person needs that test.”
This does not mean someone with symptoms can show up at, say, Sonora Quest labs and ask for a test,” Minnick said.
Wolfe took to social media to express her frustration and anger with the state of virus testing – and with the contradictory directives physicians and patients are getting.
“We are told to reach out to the Maricopa County Health Department regarding questions on where to send questionable patients,” she posted. “Physicians are being told, ‘Just send them to the local urgent care.’ Out of a sense of duty to our patients, we have called the local urgent care and have been told NO! They do not do any testing there. So once again, a few hours have been spent on the phone, back and forth with members of the Health Department getting insufficient, obscure, incorrect and vague answers.”
She assailed “the merry-go-round of misinformation” that has patients “meandering around the city and their community, ill and potentially sharing the virus with untold number of other citizens in our state” and wrote, “No one at the Maricopa County Health Department was able to tell us where any ‘drive through’ or quick testing centers exist in the entire Valley.”
Wolfe told AFN that she advises patients who have called complaining of respiratory distress to go to a hospital emergency room because “the urgent cares are telling us they don’t have the ability to test.”
She said she sent the state lab a specimen from a patient who is a doctor.
“Something made me very suspicious and I decided to follow up on it. And I did. And thank goodness I did because the state lab said, ‘Oh no, we didn’t run it. You didn’t give us anything that looked like it fit the criteria. So, they threw the sample out.’”
“They said, ‘the only way we will do a coronavirus test on a sample you sent us is if you tell us the patient has been in a country that is endemically infected or has a known exposure to a patient that is COVID-19 positive,” Wolfe continued.
“I said, ‘Well, this patient is a family practice doc who sees a lot of patients. I’m not going to lie. A couple of people said, ‘you should’ve just lied. And I said, no, I can’t do that. That’s not right.’”
In her 28 years of practice, Wolfe said she has seen nothing like the coronavirus pandemic.
She recalled that during the H1N1 epidemic in 2009, “we had four medicines that could shorten the course.”
“This virus is a different animal,” she said, noting how it jumped from animal to human and mutated quickly, complicating researchers’ ability to study it fully and develop an effective vaccine.
Wolfe said in a post last week that she will continue calling the public’s attention to “the mass confusion and misinformation (that) persists with our county, city and state health facilities” and her frustration that public health officials have “zero understanding that private offices do not have any adequate protection, [like] N95 masks, gowns, protective eyewear, etc.”
She fears the nation is heading into the same abyss that Italy finds itself in, saying that without more tests, no one truly has a good idea of the epidemic’s breadth.
“We’re getting a lot of calls and so we do our best not to try to panic anybody, but try to be reasonable,” she told AFN. “It would be lovely if we could get everybody tested and get numbers because, as I keep saying, knowledge is power.”
“We’re the fifth largest city in the country for God’s sake,” Wolfe said. “And to think that we’re going to be immune – no pun intended – from this outbreak I think is ridiculous. But we have no idea because we have no testing going on."