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COVID-19 is ‘very real,’ not a hoax: ER Doctor

Yahoo Finance’s Adam Shapiro and Seana Smith speak with Dr. Steven McDonald, an emergency room doctor in New York, about the spiking cases of coronavirus and what we can do to stay safe.

Video Transcript

SEANA SMITH: We want to bring in our next guest here to discuss the pandemic. And for that, we have Dr. Steven McDonald. He's an emergency medicine physician with the university-- with Columbia University. Dr. McDonald, great to have you on the program. Let's just start with the fact you're based in New York City-- the city's positivity rate reaching at 3% threshold. New York City public school going to remote learning. What have you been seeing just in the emergency room at Columbia over the last couple of weeks?

STEVEN MCDONALD: Absolutely. So, first of all, thank you for having me. The emergency room where I work is definitely becoming busier and busier. We're by no means at the levels of critical patients that we were in March and April. But there is an uptick in volume. And I'm seeing a lot more incidental coronavirus.

Patients who fell off a skateboard get an X-ray. And it shows that, you know, there's coronavirus there. And we test them. And lo and behold, it's positive. So it's definitely surprising. There's a notable uptick.

ADAM SHAPIRO: What has changed about the way that people are being treated today who might wind up in a coronavirus ward as opposed to March and April?

STEVEN MCDONALD: At least in the Emergency Department, I feel more comfortable giving drugs, like dexamethasone, a steroid that was heralded as a treatment for coronavirus earlier on in the pandemic, whereas, I would not have been comfortable giving that in March and April when it was thought to potentially be dangerous. Once patients reach the wards, we now have drugs, like remdesivir, which while they don't offer necessarily a benefit to mortality, they do decrease symptoms in the patients.

SEANA SMITH: Dr. McDonald, what are you seeing just at your hospital just in terms of the fact that we've been talking to so many doctors recently, and they've been mentioning staffing shortages. Much of that happening out in the Midwest. But what is Columbia doing to prepare for that potential type of situation there?

STEVEN MCDONALD: So I'm not up in administration, but I can tell you that we've actually sent nurses and some doctors to the Midwest to help. Those people are now back. And I believe that we learned lessons from the spring. And we're mobilized and ready to tap into resources to bring doctors and nurses in to help us should we get to that need. But by no means, there you have it.

ADAM SHAPIRO: Understanding that you're not in the administration. But I'm curious. When you speak to your colleagues who might be at other medical facilities here in New York City in the five boroughs, is the city prepared for an uptick of coronavirus infections and a surge to the hospital?

STEVEN MCDONALD: Yes, absolutely. So, you KNOW I think the lessons from March and April have gone relatively well-learned. And the hospital does-- many hospitals have an action plan, including mine should things hit that crisis level again. But I do want to emphasize that the control of that lies with government, not with hospitals. And it involves shutting down for dining and, et cetera.

SEANA SMITH: Yeah, Dr. McDonald, do you think indoor dining and gyms, other areas where studies have shown that is where we see these high transmission rates. Should those be closed right now in and around New York City?

STEVEN MCDONALD: I will say it does seem silly to me to close schools and not close indoor dining. Indoor dining, gyms-- these are things that have been linked to high, high, levels of transmission. Emphasis on indoor dining which is three-fold higher than the next highest competitor there. So I think, yes. I think we're heading that way.

ADAM SHAPIRO: When we talk about indoor dining, there are a lot of restaurants in New York City that have outdoor dining. But they've set up kind of tent scenarios where there are plastic walls to keep people warm on the inside of their outdoor seating areas. Doesn't that defeat the purpose? Or is the air exchanged faster in that kind of setting than inside of brick and mortar opening?

STEVEN MCDONALD: I would say it's-- every stay-- stall is probably a little bit different. I'd like you have raised an eyebrow at a couple of these outdoor dining situations that see more indoor than outdoor. I think by law, they're supposed to be one open wall. So, you know, if you see four enclosed walls, that's flouting the rules.

SEANA SMITH: Dr. McDonald, where do-- not only with Columbia, but from the colleagues that you're talking to, where do the PPE equipment-- where does that stand? We talked about the fact that we saw so many shortages of that back in March and in April, even into May. Signs of that again in other areas of the country. What's your response to that?

STEVEN MCDONALD: It's an excellent question, and I think it varies a lot. We have a health care system that's fundamentally unequal. And so my hospital's very well prepared for the situation. And I feel very well prepared with PPE. That said, I don't know if my colleagues in the city hospital system, which struggles to get the same funding, would say the same thing.

ADAM SHAPIRO: Just out of curiosity, when you hear people in now parts of the country, which are going through drastic dire situations, refer to all of this as a hoax or that it's not really serious, what's that like for you? And what do you want to say to those people?

STEVEN MCDONALD: You know, this happened the other day where I was getting my haircut. And my barber asked me if I thought coronavirus is real. So I can tell you it's very much real. I know that many people can't necessarily see the inside of an emergency room because of HIPAA laws, et cetera. And you really only have the words of physicians and the words of patients to go on.

And so I want to just paint the clearest picture I can that, yes, we're getting a lot of critical patients coming into the emergency department. Yes, people are still oxygen-starved. And, yes, this is very real. And, I mean, as of today, it's killed 250,000 Americans. So, yes, this is real. I don't know how to convey it any better than that.

SEANA SMITH: Dr. McDonald, what is the feeling just amongst you and your colleagues, going beyond people just calling it a hoax, but the fact that you've been dealing with this, particularly here in New York City where we were hit so hard back in March and in April and have been dealing with it for eight months? How are they feeling right now when we see the cases rise, both [INAUDIBLE] and now?

STEVEN MCDONALD: Seeing the uptick at my hospital has definitely left me feeling a bit demoralized. When I see people walking around the street without a mask on, when I see people indoor dining, I have the thought of sort of like, what was it for? What it is all for that we worked so hard and tirelessly in the spring? And now, we're looking at rising case counts again.

And it pains me to read the accounts of these doctors in the Midwest who are reliving the trauma that we lived here in New York. It boggles the mind the lesson one unlearned in the same year. And so I just-- I hope that we finally get it right this time.

ADAM SHAPIRO: Dr. McDonald, we use the very cheap, I guess you'd call it, basic blue mask that you can get at the drugstore. But I've seen online KN95, which I'm told is just the Chinese version of the N95. But if the N95 is in short supply, should those of us who want to get masks go with those drugstores just basic blue hospital mask as opposed to the KN95s?

STEVEN MCDONALD: Yes, so the functions of the two masks are a bit different. So wearing the basic blue mask where we'd call a surgical mask in the hospital-- that actually does a lot to protect other people should you have coronavirus or if you're an asymptomatic carrier of coronavirus.

The KN95 or N95 actually does a lot more to protect you yourself. It filters out those particles from the surroundings. So the best is for everyone to wear the blue masks. If you're in a situation where you can't socially distance and are maybe going to be in a high exposure situation, it's best for you to wear both eye protection and a KN95 or N95.

SEANA SMITH: Dr. Steven McDonald, an emergency medicine physician at Columbia University. Thanks so much for taking the time to join us today. We wish you and your team all the best.