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'Take This Seriously Now' Warns A New York Doctor With Miami Roots

The typically busy streets in Times Square emptied as the coronavirus hit New York City in April.
The typically busy streets in Times Square emptied as the coronavirus hit New York City in April.

Doctors are warning that Miami is turning into the latest coronavirus epicenter in the country.

New York faced a similar challenge not too long ago. The city went into a lockdown as a surge of patients strained the hospital system.

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Dr. Susana Bejar, an internist at Columbia University Irving Medical Center who grew up in Miami, treated patients with COVID-19 when New York faced its virus peak. She spoke with WLRN’s Alexander Gonzalez.

WLRN: Given your experience in New York City treating the virus, what are you concerned about as you watch how the virus has spread in Miami?

BEJAR: When we were having the peak here in New York City, I was worried that my colleagues and I were vulnerable to getting sick from this virus. But in the end, I'd say only about 20 percent of my colleagues got sick. I think a lot of that has to do with the fact that PPE [personal protective equipment] works, and we were very rigorous in how we disinfected.

It also had to do with the fact that the city really locked down and got behind the hospitals and health care workers. And thanks to that, you know, I didn't really know that many people outside of the medical community getting ill. That has really changed with regards to Miami. I have many friends calling me over the last few weeks, either with symptoms of their own positive COVID tests. Relatives getting sick. Friends getting sick. I'm worried that this disease is going to be a lot more pervasive in Miami because Miami is really not shutting down. And I don't see the same communal effort toward wearing masks and shutting down and protecting the community.

It sounds like you're in support of a widespread shutdown. Officials have really hesitated about going in that direction. They want a more piecemeal approach, not that major lockdown that we saw in New York City.

I think there was a time where universal masking could have could have controlled the coronavirus outbreak in Miami. We are past that point, and this piecemeal approach without truly shutting down is going to make the coronavirus just stay longer. So far, the only thing that has proven globally to really tamping down on the virus is shutdowns.

What could Miami learn from the way that New York City responded to the virus?

Throughout the pandemic, at the peak, we all saw this as a community effort. The city came out to support us by staying home. We all have to see tackling the pandemic as all of our responsibility. It's not just the responsibility of the government or health care workers. This pandemic is not going to go away without us all helping out.

As a New York health care provider, what do you make of the startling increase in hospitalizations of people with COVID-19? ICU bed capacity is also close to maxing out in Florida.

I've been following the numbers. Miami is definitely still in that steep part of the curve where hospitalizations and deaths are rising. And during that part of the curve in New York City, we had shut down and we were doing everything possible to do social distancing.

I also worry about the potential looming double catastrophe as peak hurricane season approaches in Florida. Think of Hurricane Katrina. Think of hospitals without electricity, with failing medical equipment. Imagine trying to need to evacuate people in that situation. Even here in New York for Hurricane Sandy, a few years ago, at NYU Langone and at Bellevue hospitals, the electrical systems failed. And we had to evacuate patients.

So imagine having to evacuate patients that are infected with something that is communicable to staff. It's a horrifying situation. Whatever Miami can do to potentially lessen the impact of a double catastrophe in the next few months is something that needs to be done now. We need to take this seriously now.

This interview was lightly edited for brevity and clarity.

Copyright 2020 WLRN 91.3 FM. To see more, visit WLRN 91.3 FM.

Alexander Gonzalez is a recent graduate of the University of Miami. He majored in English and was the the editor-in-chief of The Miami Hurricane newspaper from 2014-15. He was WLRN's digital intern during summer 2015. He subscribes to too many podcasts and can't get away from covering the arts in Miami.