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"We're going to have a higher fatality rate among our health care workers," Dr. Esther Choo warns

By Claudia Harmata and Diane Herbst
April 01, 2020 03:56 PM
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As more and more patients with COVID-19 flood to hospitals for treatment, doctors and nurses are at high risk of exposure and left worrying about their own health and that of their loved ones.

“People are having hard discussions with their families about ‘who takes care of my kids if I’m gone?’ ” Dr. Esther Choo, MD, MPH, an emergency room doctor and associate professor at the Oregon Health & Science University in Portland tells PEOPLE in this week’s issue. “We’re going to have a higher fatality rate among our health care workers. We’re all going to lose friends and colleagues, people we trained with, people we worked with for many years, all of us. So there’s just kind of this grim reality and I think people are very reasonably anxious and scared at the same time.”

Choo herself has worked with COVID-19 patients in recent weeks, and tells PEOPLE that she and her husband — who also works at a hospital — have discussed a plan for the worst-case scenario as they share four young children together.

“My husband is in radiology, so he’s a little distant from patient care. But he’s also a physician and goes into the hospital every day. What if?” she says. “We’ve had conversations reviewing our own plan for who’s going to take our kids. We’re very sensitive about our symptoms. I get a little itch to my nose, and I’m like, seasonal allergies or my first symptom? I do a lot of decontamination. I change clothes before I leave the hospital, wash up to my elbows.”

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Credit: Courtesy Esther Choo

“When I get home, my 4-year-old thinks it’s a game where she tries to hug me but I run into the bathroom and shut the door to shower from head to toe before I touch her. She thinks it’s hilarious,” Choo adds. “A 4-year-old doesn’t really understand viruses.”

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Choo says that the couple have even talked about the possibility of her sleeping in her office once she begins to see more coronavirus cases at her facility.

“I have a cot there and we have showers at work and I think there probably will come a time where I need to do some more aggressive containment strategies,” she says, explaining that two of her children have asthma, putting them at a greater risk for a severe case of the virus.

And Choo’s worry is only heightened by the mass shortage of appropriate personal protective equipment. From masks to gowns, medical staff in hospitals all over the U.S. are being forced to either reuse their PPEs — which are typically only made for single-use — or sometimes even make their own.

“I would feel so much better taking risks at work knowing that I’m as protected as I can be,” Choo says. “The risk equation and the concerns about my family are really heightened when we have less than ideal PPE. I feel like I’m not even doing the best that I can for them, for anybody, for my patients or for my family in terms of not transmitting disease.”

For more heroes on the front lines of the coronavirus pandemic, pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday, or subscribe here.

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Credit: Tim Tai/The Philadelphia Inquirer/Pool

Unfortunately, for Choo and for the many other courageous people currently manning our hospitals, there doesn’t seem to be a definite end in sight for the ongoing outbreak, or their limited supplies.

“I heard one physician say something like, ‘I feel like I’m standing at the shore, but instead of a wave coming in, it’s a tsunami, and I cannot run away.’ That’s what it is. It’s bigger than anything that we’ve faced in our lifetimes,” she says.

But Choo says she finds hope in the people she has the honor of working with.

“Health care workers, we go through so much training and you just click into gear. You know, you do what needs to be done and people are not emotional at work,” she says. “They’re being extremely professional and actually demonstrating enormous amounts of compassion for both patients and their colleagues. They’re stepping up and doing extra things, and volunteering.”

“I have to say I’m tremendously proud. It’s like the best of people,” she adds. “So it’s the mix of horrible and wonderful all at once.”

As information about the coronavirus pandemic rapidly changes, PEOPLE is committed to providing the most recent data in our coverage. Some of the information in this story may have changed after publication. For the latest on COVID-19, readers are encouraged to use online resources from CDC, WHO, and local public health departments. To help provide doctors and nurses on the front lines with life-saving medical resources, donate to Direct Relief here.