In a pandemic told through numbers, Dr. Anne Zink shares the story from the last line of defense

(Photo from Dr. Anne Zink's Twitter thread)

Since the start of the pandemic, much of Alaska’s story has been told through numbers. There’s the daily case count on the state’s dashboard, the active cases, the inventory of available ICU beds and the Anchorage Fire Department’s hospital status website.

At best, these numbers tell us where we’ve been as the time between infection and a positive test can be a week if not more. At worst, as we’ve seen, the numbers tell an incomplete story thanks to the state’s limited data entry capacity and a lab’s failure to report thousands of tests.

The squishiness of these numbers invites everyone to make their preferred conclusion. To some, the numbers show a distressing rise of cases that demands action while others point to the low-ish death rate as if the loss of just 120 Alaskans is something to find solace in.

What’s been largely left untold amid our focus on the numbers is the story from the last line of defense in the pandemic.

In the early days of the pandemic, some of the most impactful images were those secretly taken of hospitals so crowded that some patients were confined to wheelchairs and others were in hallways. Too many patients and not enough doctors and nurses. The breadth and severity of the human tragedy on display was shocking and pushed many into unthinkable action as many places enacted lockdowns.

But in a world where we rightly respect the privacy of the patient—where we understand that each one of these patients is a person who does not deserve to have their most dire moments broadcast to the world—such images have not been as frequent and the void left behind has been filled by unserious opportunists who tell people to “party like it’s New Year’s Eve” as hard-hit Anchorage enters its second month-long hunker down period, its hospitals near the brink and its minority communities hit hard.

Some health care providers have come forward with their personal stories, but perhaps the most impactful account came this weekend from Alaska’s most high-profile health care provider in Dr. Anne Zink, the state’s chief medical officer who’s faced an uphill battle to inform and educate the public about the pandemic as part of an administration filled with unserious opportunists.

In a Twitter thread published Sunday evening, Zink relayed some of her experiences from the frontlines.

“Every time I walk into my shift, I can see into the ICU. I love standing outside and glimpsing the beauty of this profession before I walk into the middle of it. These days, it’s darker outside, the lights are on all the time and there is often frenetic movement,” she wrote. “These days, the stories are sadder than usual.  They are full of ‘I thought I would be fine’ or ‘I can’t breathe’ or ‘I didn’t think it would be this bad’ mixed with the occasional ‘I didn’t want to come in’ or ‘I waited as long as I could because I know how busy you all are.’”

It’s a thread of the people brought together by a virus that has spread largely unchecked as short-term business and political interests override public health interests.

“The heroes of these stories are many: The nurses who look at me in near desperation and say, ‘I don’t know what else to do,’ but then find a way. The house cleaners who work in silent teams, exhausted but moving as fast as they can to clean and open another room. The unit secretary who calls multiple hospitals to see if anyone has space to take a patient our hospital cannot accommodate. The respiratory therapist who figures out the details of a new machine because we have run out of all the other regular machines,” Zink wrote. “The pharmacist who stays late to help walk a nurse through a new treatment option. The house supervisor figuring out how to launder more gowns as we are going through them faster and faster every day. The doctor, who after calling a family to let them know their loved one may not survive, says to her colleagues, ‘This is awful, I grew up with that family and he is younger than me’ but has no time to pause or grieve, because she has more patients waiting for her.”

And then there’s patients, of which there are more and more every day.

“At the center of every story is a patient with their own history. The father who thought he would quickly clear COVID like his family but who now can’t breathe and is now being admitted to the ICU,” Zink wrote. “The healthy individual who cleared COVID but then comes back with chest pain from a heart attack likely caused by the disease. The little girl crying because she has a high fever from COVID and her belly hurts.”

For some, the end of their story has already come but Zink closes the thread with a plea that the story of the pandemic has yet to be written.

“Those who help write these stories are each of you.  When you choose to stay home, rearrange your business, your life, and your family as best as you can, you are choosing to protect your community, your family and each other, and you are changing these narratives,” she wrote. “By keeping your distance, wearing a mask, washing your hands, increasing indoor ventilation and keeping your social circles small, you are helping decide how these stories will unfold.  You are choosing to not let this virus determine our collective fate. We want to there for you and yours when need us, but it is getting hard and we need your help.  Together, we chose how this story ends, so thank you for doing what you can – it matters.”

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