I still get chills when I think back to March. Within the space of a few weeks, my life was no longer recognisable. A month which started with my final bridal gown fitting, sobered rapidly when 10 days later my partner and I found ourselves notifying the guestlist that our June wedding was postponed. The cancellation barely registered with me: my attention was entirely taken up by the worsening pandemic.
The hospital where I worked felt the full impact of the exponential curve of coronavirus infections. Within three weeks of the first case of COVID-19, the Intensive Care Unit was scrambling for more beds and I, newly seconded, turned up for my first shift in full PPE.
What followed is still too difficult to articulate. Looking after a hospital’s sickest patients is challenging at the best of times. However, the situation during the height of the pandemic was unparalleled. Every shift saw that many more gasping patients, that many more deaths. With so much to do, staff powered through in survival mode, only registering their ordeal when the situation eased in late summer.
That is why this new surge in coronavirus cases, mere months later, strikes fear into healthcare staff across the country. Going through that again? Please, please no.
But the dreaded second wave needn’t be like the first. One of the most astounding features of human character is the ability to learn, quickly, if needed. Ten months since the UK’s first confirmed coronavirus case is plenty of time to have learnt what does and does not work in managing a pandemic. As such, the public should have faith that when it comes to enduring this next wave; people have had training for it and know what to do.
By now, we know that social distancing works in reducing the spread of the virus. If that is news to you, let me bring you up to date. A recent Lancet meta-analysis, investigating strategies to limit virus spread, shows that at greater distances, eg above 1 metre, there was significantly lower virus transmission. Most of us probably knew this already, standing back, as we always have, from the sneezing colleague at work.
In fact, most of the coronavirus management strategies, such as hand-washing, were commonsense methods we already used for colds, so in the case of corona, these measures could be emphasised with billboards and even street graffiti reminding us about hygiene. As we find ourselves in the mother of all cold and flu seasons, we should remember that this behaviour is not uncommon to us. It is something we would normally do but, this time, with life-saving benefits. And unlike in summer, wearing a mask brings the added bonus of warming the face in the cold autumn/winter air.
With the practicalities down pat, that leaves psychology. For many of us, last year took an incredible toll, and the question is, how do we survive more? The answer to this isn’t as easy as reaching for the Imperial Leather. As social restrictions have escalated, we find ourselves back in our homes, alone or perhaps confined with (not so) loved ones. Many will dread this prospect but a moment’s reflection may help manage the negative feelings. All of us have faced losses as a result of the pandemic, but we should take pride that we have borne it. Some have flourished, whereas some of us have weathered less gracefully, crying every step of the way.
My wedding celebration is scheduled for summer 2021, but even now I receive emails from my hospital calling me back for extra ITU shifts. Of course, I am hoping the vaccine will be our saviour, but knowing the practicalities of rolling out mass immunisation schemes, it may be some time before everyone is vaccinated. With new infections rising exponentially, the second wave is here and I may face an exact replay of last year with another cancelled wedding and stint in ICU. Surprisingly, I don’t dread it as much as I thought I would.
In the past year, I have learnt so much about this disease and myself in the process. I know what it is to work weekly night shifts looking after the sickest of the sick and to cry at a lack of loo roll in the supermarket. But those trying circumstances ended (albeit temporarily) and they will do again. Similarly, for you, I don’t know what your corona story is, but I know there are hardships. Take heart from how much you have already endured, and know that you too are ready for the second round of corona.