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OPINION

Protect health care workers from the coronavirus so they can protect the world

I survived a battle with Ebola six years ago. Now I’m worried about health care workers exposed to COVID-19.

Nurses in protective gear at the drive-through coronavirus testing facility at Cape Cod Community College.
Nurses in protective gear at the drive-through coronavirus testing facility at Cape Cod Community College.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

As I read the story of two health care workers who contracted COVID-19 in Wuhan, my heart raced and a tight knot gathered in my chest. I had been there.

They were both 29 years old. Deng Danjing, a nurse, survived, but Dr. Xia Sisi, a gastroenterologist at Union Jiangbei hospital in Wuhan, did not make it. Xia contracted COVID-19 while working long hours taking care of patients. She was seemingly healthy and had a husband and a young son, Jiabao, who is now left without a mother.

In 2014 I contracted Ebola while treating the first detected case in Lagos, Nigeria. I was 28 years old and healthy — but I almost lost my life.

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I was in isolation for 14 days as the virus ravaged my body. Some of my colleagues didn’t make it.

I worked in a private hospital that was one of the best in Lagos. Although Ebola was ravaging Sierra Leone, Guinea, and Liberia, we in Nigeria were not prepared. When we received that first patient who flew in from Liberia, a man named Patrick Sawyer, we did not have a protocol in place, nor did we have adequate personal protective equipment (PPE). We had gloves, surgical masks, and shoe covers, but gowns that were knee length and had three-quarter sleeves. Our eyes were unprotected. As a result, 20 people in the hospital were infected; 10 were health care workers. Half of the health care workers died, including Dr. Stella Adadevoh, a consultant endocrinologist who risked her life to prevent the spread of Ebola across Nigeria.

I could have retreated when we first suspected that Sawyer had Ebola. Some doctors refused to go into the patient’s room because they did not want to be exposed. They understood that we were ill-equipped. Who could blame them?

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But the thought of staying away never occurred to me. Medical staff are on the front lines in any outbreak. It means we often work extra long hours in unsafe conditions, because if we do not care for our patients, who will?

During the 2002 SARS outbreak, a fifth of the people infected were health care workers. In the West Africa Ebola outbreak, 881 health care workers in Sierra Leone, Guinea, and Liberia were infected and 513 died.

In China, more than 3,000 health care workers have been infected with the novel coronavirus, and 22 have died. In the United States, hundreds of health care workers have been quarantined due to exposure to potential COVID-19 cases. Several have tested positive, including health care workers in Boston and Vacaville, Calif., and emergency doctors in New Jersey and Washington state.

Six years after I battled Ebola, I work as a doctor in the United States. I have a 4-year-old daughter and a lot more to live for. Sadly, we are dealing with a disappointing level of emergency preparedness for COVID-19.

Recently, National Nurses United, the largest union and professional association of registered nurses in the United States, surveyed 6,500 registered nurses nationwide and found that they generally did not feel prepared to respond to the outbreak. Less than half had gotten information on how to recognize and respond to potential cases. Only a third reported that their facilities had a COVID-19 isolation plan. Two-thirds had access to heavy-duty N95 respirator masks in their units and were trained on how to safely don and doff personal protective equipment. Shockingly, fewer than 20 percent reported that there is a policy in place for employees who are exposed.

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Our emergency rooms and intensive care units are like war zones and we are the foot soldiers. Health care workers are reusing N95 masks and many are being asked to use surgical masks due to shortages. As hospitals run out of respirators and other necessary PPEs, some have resorted to hoarding.

We need the support of our hospital administrations, state health agencies, governments, and the general public in order to continue to care for patients and reduce our risk.

Governments need to facilitate the production of face masks, gloves, and other protective equipment to ensure we are adequately protected.

The public needs to practice social distancing to reduce community spread and decrease the enormous pressure on the already stressed health care workforce who cannot stay home and must care for the sick.

Nigeria contained the Ebola outbreak in 93 days, thanks to Dr. Adadevoh, who was suspicious early and prevented the first patient from leaving the hospital; the proactive Lagos state ministry of health; Lagos state government; and the media, which worked tirelessly to disseminate correct information to the public.

We put our lives on the line for others. Some of us were lucky to survive. Others like Xi, Adadevoh, and Dr. Li Wenliang, who blew the whistle on the coronavirus outbreak in China, lost their lives. Thousands more continue to risk their lives for the safety of others.

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Now, we need you to fight hard for us.

Dr. Adaora Okoli survived the Ebola virus and now works to strengthen health systems to reduce the burden of infectious diseases in low-income communities and achieve equitable access to health. She is an Aspen New Voices Fellow. Follow her on Twitter @DrAdaora.

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