• These doctors and nurses soldier on, despite sleeping in dormitories and not seeing their loved ones for a prolonged period, or getting ostracised by colleagues
  • Anxiety over becoming infected and frustration with insufficient protective gear are always at the back of their minds
Medical staff transfer a patient suspected as a Covid-19 case at Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Hong Kong. Photo: Reuters

David (not his real name) is a doctor who works in a Kowloon hospital in Hong Kong, but his colleagues avoid him, and he only goes home once every two weeks to see his wife, spending other nights alone in a hotel room or at his office, which has a foldable mattress, clean clothing and food.

He belongs on a "dirty team" " medical workers at the front line of the war against the coronavirus. While such units have no official title, the term is widely used among peers in the sector.

The name captures the grit and grind of a group of health care staff who are the first to receive highly suspected cases and who deal most with infections, but it is also a label that unintentionally represents their isolation and loneliness.

Pedestrians in masks in Mong Kok. Photo: Sun Yeung

As Hong Kong's alarming surge in Covid-19 cases over the past two weeks shows no signs of waning, with the city recording more than 580 cases by Sunday, three dirty team members share their stories and fears with the Post, on condition of anonymity.

"Some colleagues will avoid us … even though from the Hospital Authority's perspective, we are very clean as we are in full protective gear," David, who has been attending to patients since mid-February, said.

His work is physically demanding. To scrimp on limited stocks of protective gear, he usually stays in his suit and mask for hours on end while in the isolation ward.

There were some days when there were inadequate amounts of eye shields, or perhaps just a few pieces of protective gownsDavid (not his real name), doctor

"If you don't take off the mask, a new one will not be used. But it is rather hard to wear an N95 respirator for four hours consecutively," he said.

Tasks to be carried out in each ward visit require careful planning in advance, to avoid repeated trips and use of protective gear. It is a delicate balancing act.

David and his colleagues' frustrations stem from the insufficient stock of protective equipment, something he claimed management painted a different picture on.

"There were some days when there were inadequate amounts of eye shields, or perhaps just a few pieces of protective gowns," he said.

Nurse Tracy (not her real name) at Princess Margaret Hospital in Kwai Chung. Photo: Jonathan Wong

For Tracy (not her real name), a nurse who worked in the Hospital Authority's Infectious Disease Centre at Princess Margaret Hospital, the fear of the rising number of cases leading to a worst-case scenario for Hong Kong regularly gnaws at her mind.

"I'm really worried that there would be a massive outbreak," she said. "With this rate of increase and taking in that many cases daily, one day health care workers could get infected."

Last week, a doctor issuing quarantine orders for arrivals at the airport became one of the first medical workers in the city to get infected. But so far there has been no outbreak among health care staff.

The workload in Tracy's ward, which handles patients highly suspected to be virus carriers, has gotten heavier since mid-March.

"After we transfer a patient (who has been cleared of infection) to a general ward, we have to rush to attend to another incoming case."

She said she worried that eventually infected patients would have to be placed together from lack of space, delaying their recovery from the dreaded disease, or resulting in complications.

As medical workers, under such a situation, procedures such as intubation " inserting tubes into a patient's body, especially through the mouth " would present a high infection risk for them, according to Tracy.

My mother has been asking me to go to her home for dinner, but I dare notTracy (not her real name), nurse

She volunteered for her four-week duty on the dirty team in early March, hoping to learn more about handling people with infectious diseases.

Her personal fears were soothed when she learned of the stringent standard of isolation at the centre, and the protective gear she would receive. "There are enough protective gear and we don't need to reuse masks."

But this has not prevented her from taking extra precaution to protect her family from the dangers she could bring home.

Before the pandemic, Tracy would visit her mother, who lives separately, once or twice a week. But she has stopped doing so since the start of her dirty team duty.

"My mother has been asking me to go to her home for dinner, but I dare not," she said.

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Meanwhile, at Pamela Youde Nethersole Eastern Hospital, nurse Cindy (not her real name), started her dirty team duties with unease after drawing lots with colleagues in January.

"The disease was new and you did not know how infectious it was," she said.

When she first began and before she actually received confirmed cases, she would anxiously check with colleagues if patients she had collected samples from had tested positive.

Having completed her stint this month, Cindy recalled her time as "lonely and miserable", as she was not able to see her parents and friends.

To reduce infection risks to others, she stayed in the hospital dormitory and only hung out with colleagues who were also on the same team. Her birthday was spent quietly with her boyfriend, unlike her usual way of celebrating with a big group of friends.

While away from her parents, their safety was constantly on her mind.

"The public may think hospitals are dangerous, but from our understanding, the wider community is even more dangerous," she said. "People usually are not vigilant enough with what they come into contact with."

As cases in Hong Kong grow in number, Cindy echoes the concerns of her colleagues in other hospitals.

"More wards and more nurses would be needed. It is easy to become infected if you don't observe all the preventive steps."

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