COVID-19: Jewish healthcare workers fight the virus in Los Angeles

HEALTH AFFAIRS:The state is witnessing a massive surge in infections. As a result, ICU beds are full. Meanwhile, vaccines are being rolled out at a snail’s pace and frontline workers are overwhelmed.

THE ENTRANCE TO Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, which has been inundated with COVID-19 patients. (photo credit: BENOIT TESSIER/REUTERS)
THE ENTRANCE TO Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, which has been inundated with COVID-19 patients.
LOS ANGELES – On December 31, I received a phone call from Cedars-Sinai Medical Center – one of Los Angeles’s major hospitals – telling me that a procedure I was scheduled to undergo on January 13 had been canceled due to the ongoing COVID-19 crisis.
Cedars-Sinai, like every other hospital in California, is overwhelmed with COVID-19 patients. The state is witnessing a massive surge in infections. As a result, ICU beds are full.
In Los Angeles County alone – home to just over 10 million people – one in every five people has tested positive for the virus. On January 11, the county hit a grim milestone: 30,000 recorded COVID-19 deaths. Meanwhile, vaccines are being rolled out at a snail’s pace and frontline workers are overwhelmed.
Rabbi Jason Weiner, a chaplain at Cedars-Sinai, told The Jerusalem Post, “This is so much worse now than [back in March]. Then it was the fear of the unknown. Now it’s worse because the intensity is so much more severe and the death rate is up.”
That, he added, has led to “exhaustion, severe fatigue, burnout and frustration” among staff. “The hospital is so short-staffed now, we have been told nobody can take any time off until March. And there are now staff encountering death who never have encountered death before. It’s overwhelming.”
It has also been a shock for ICU nurse Pnina Olkha, who obtained her nursing license in 2018 and started working night shifts at a Los Angeles area hospital in September 2019.
Prior to the pandemic, Olkha said, she had seen one or two patients on life support, but over the last several months that number had jumped to “30 or 40. It was jarring. We went from a high survival rate in the ICU to almost 70% of people passing. That definitely takes a toll. That’s a huge morale loss.”
Medical/surgical nurse Boaz Hepner has been spared some of these grim statistics because, after working for only three weeks in March when the pandemic hit, he was sidelined with a back injury. He managed to return to work in October for another three weeks but is now on disability through April.
“In October our unit had COVID patients,” he said. “At one point I was working as a runner for the ICU. While I was there, a COVID patient died, another was dying and there was a third patient who was a nurse from an Orange County hospital.”
By law, Hepner said, nurses are not supposed to have more than two isolation patients in a critical care unit at a time. “Now they are taking on up to five,” he said. “That is horrible. And it becomes unsafe.”
NEUROSURGEON BRIAN Gantwerker concurred. “[My] hospital has 115 beds, and 80 are patients being treated for COVID. It was never this bad. The first five beds in the PACU [Post-Anesthesia Care Unit] had COVID patients because there was no room for them in the ICU. My eyes teared up. This was a whole new level of crazy that we had not seen in the springtime.”
Isaac Moorvitch, an Orthodox Jew, is an ER technician at a local hospital.
“Back in March [the pandemic] was more scary than anything else,” he said, “because so much was unknown. Now, we’re just overwhelmed. We’re at 120% capacity. The ICUs are full and they are making other floors into ICU units.”
He added, “It’s emotionally draining and physically exhausting. Half of those people we were working with in the ER have gotten sick themselves. The staff we do have are exhausted. We don’t have that extra adrenaline. Adrenaline only lasts for so long.”
All frontline workers have had to find ways to cope with the exhaustion, burnout and trauma associated with the pandemic. Olkha goes to therapy, talks with coworkers and “uses a lot of dark humor. I remind myself I’m not the only one going through this,” she said. “We have this shared bond at work where we laugh almost hysterically when we walk in, because nobody else really knows what we’re going through.”
She added, “Initially I had horrible PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder]. I was hearing alarms in the shower. I was hearing alarms when I closed my eyes. I was dreaming of my patients. I would wake up unable to breathe, gasping for air.”
She also tries to focus on other interests, including doing art and “sometimes just scrolling through YouTube videos. Anything to turn your brain off.”
“As chaplains we all have a self-care plan,” Weiner said. “For me, it’s exercising and listening to music. When this is finally over, I will need a real break and time for emotional and psychological recovery.”
For Moorvitch, spending time with his wife and five children helps him stay focused. “And I believe in Hashem [God]. Some people believe in a higher power. It kind of gives you a mental breakthrough.”
“We have dance parties sometimes in the office,” Gantwerker said. “I try to keep the mood light. My staff – Jewish and non-Jewish – gets along well, even though we have different political opinions. We are like family. My father used to say, ‘You either laugh or you cry.’ We choose to laugh.”
One positive development is that everyone interviewed for this story, save for Hepner, has now been vaccinated. Hepner was offered the vaccine, but because he is still out on disability, he chose to wait so that other hospital workers could be vaccinated first.
Receiving the vaccine “was very emotional,” Weiner said. “It was very exciting and very meaningful. I have a profound sense of gratitude and said the Hatov Hamaitiv bracha [blessing God for being good and doing good]. But I also had mixed emotions because I felt like a lot of other people need it more than me.”
“EMOTIONAL” WAS also the word Gantwerker used. “It made me realize that I have a duty to show people that I’m stepping up and literally taking one in the arm to show people this is safe. I’m doing my part and asking you to do the same.”
Olkha said she felt a “little bit of a sense of relief” after being vaccinated. “But there’s also a little bit of fear that people will use getting the vaccine as an excuse to be unsafe. It feels like a win, but how do I exhale and let my shoulders relax if I feel like not everybody is going to take this win with us?”
Workers have fears and frustrations about people who don’t take the virus seriously.
“I’m sick of people not supporting what we do, sick of people denying [the virus], people spewing nonsense,” Olkha said. “A lot of times when we leave the safety of the hospital it feels like we’re being slapped in the face. Sometimes it’s easier to be at work almost. You know your own coworkers will be there for you and have your back.”
“I find healthcare workers to be extremely altruistic and kind and compassionate,” Weiner said. “In March, everyone was talking about rallying around the healthcare workers. There was unity. Now there’s no more unity. There’s no more ‘Go and thank a nurse today.’ That’s not happening. Not only are we not given praise or recognition, people are going to protests or concerts or rallies and not wearing masks. It’s horrible.”
Said Hepner, “Just about every nurse and doctor has been saying since March, ‘Please stay home so we don’t have to take care of you.’ It became a cliché at a certain point. People stopped listening. Some people never started listening. Too many people say, ‘It’s fine, it’s just old people, it’s not me, I don’t know anyone who died, I’m not going to be affected, it’s fake, it’s the flu, masks don’t work, they’re taking away our freedoms.’ People don’t understand how bad this is, how overwhelmed the hospital system is.”
“As a doctor, you are tasked with educating the public, not just taking care of them,” Gantwerker said. “The general public holding protests with no masks? That’s public endangerment. There are hundreds of thousands of people who have died, and millions of people who are sick. It’s not going to slow down until everyone grows up and faces the truth.”
He added, “An important concept in Judaism is pikuach nefesh [saving a life]. I look at me educating one patient and dispelling myths and rumors as pikuach nefesh. As a Jewish doctor, I feel you have to do that. People look to us for the truth.”