One year later: From the first doctor to treat a COVID-19 patient to a now empty COVID-19 unit

Empty COVID-19 unit
Posted at 9:25 PM, Mar 03, 2021

Just over a year ago, Everett, Washington, saw the first diagnosed U.S. case of COVID-19.

“We got a call from the CDC saying that we had the first patient in the U.S. with COVID, and that they wanted us to admit him to our hospital,” Dr. George Diaz, section chief for infectious diseases at Providence Regional Medical Center Everett, said.

Diaz never could have imagined he would be the one to treat the first confirmed U.S. case of COVID-19.

“It’s like doing a fire drill. You never know when there’s going to be a fire. But if you drill enough, when it actually happens, you’re ready for it and then you move through the steps you have to do. That’s really what was at the forefront of our minds when we got the first patient,” he explained.

Photos from early last year share the story of uncertainty -- something many of us felt when we were just beginning to understand the virus and how it spreads.

“We didn't know the disease at the beginning, we didn't know the symptoms associated with the disease,” Diaz said. “We used more PPE in our hospital during our first month of the pandemic than our entire 50-hospital health system used in a full year.”

Providence Regional Medical Center Everett is still closed to visitors. The hospital has changed how it operates.

“It caused essentially a complete change in the way we deliver health care. We now screen every patient that comes in the door for a new virus that wasn't present before,” he said.

States and cities towns have all experienced the past year differently, based on different rules and regulations, and how the virus spreads. More than 2,000 miles away, health care workers in Springfield, Missouri, lived a different story.

“We’re standing in what is now a 53-bed, open-ward style COVID ICU. We began to build this in March. We got it done in two weeks,” Steve Edwards, president and CEO of CoxHealth, said. “Having an open ward, which is no longer really allowed in hospital code, we got special permission to do this.”

This space was never meant to be a place for COVID patients to be laying just feet apart, with plastic dividers in between them. The roof remains unfinished. Before last year, it was used for storage. CoxHealth adapted as doctors saw cases rise around the world.

“It went up on that sort of exponential curve we all feared,” Edwards said.

Photos show the room filled with patients and nurses. Each nurse's PPE was checked before entering the room.

“It became incredibly personal to us. When I would walk through this unit, I would see people I know that were struggling on maybe their last breath,” he said. Fortunately, Edwards has seen a decline between mid-January and now. This room is no longer needed. He hopes it stays that way.

“It stayed open all the way until about two weeks ago. We probably saw more than 1,000 patients come through this unit, probably had more than 300 patients in this unit eventually not leave the hospital. So, a very intense moment. A moment and a place that, to our staff, is almost sacred because you just don't lose this much life in one unit. There was a single day we lost seven lives,” he said.

Now, the room is empty of patients. All that remains is the beds, breathalyzers, and infrastructure built to help those infected.

“It was a moment that created a lot of joy in our organization when we shut this down,” Edwards said.

In the past year, medical leaders have learned a lot about the virus, helping them shape their response through their experiences.

“It’s now in the forefront of our minds and will be with us for quite some time I believe,” Diaz said.

“Rapid advancement in a crisis always occurs, and it’s occurring now. I’m really grateful for that rapid advancement,” Edwards said.