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Houston Doctor Expects Another Coronavirus Surge After Christmas

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

We've called back a doctor who has now been on the job for 272 consecutive days. Dr. Joseph Varon, chief of critical care at Houston's United Memorial Medical Center, is on the line. His work puts him at the center of managing coronavirus cases.

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JOSEPH VARON: I've been sleeping no more than two hours per night. I signed more death certificates last week than in my entire life, almost all put together.

INSKEEP: That was July. When we spoke, his case numbers were rising in Houston. We spoke again when the national death toll passed 200,000 people in September.

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VARON: I'm living on adrenaline. I mean, I'm going and going and going. And also, the sense that if I don't do what I'm doing right now, nobody else is going to.

INSKEEP: By last month, Dr. Varon's hospital was accepting COVID patients from hard-hit El Paso, which is hundreds of miles west of Houston.

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VARON: You have no idea how crazy things are. I mean, it's beyond ridiculous. The number of patients have increased. The severity of illness has increased. I truly believe that the next six weeks are going to be probably the darkest weeks that Houston has had. We need people to just keep on fighting, you know. I know it's tiring. I mean, I'm exhausted. You can imagine. I mean, it is very tough.

INSKEEP: All right, now we're in the middle of those six tough weeks, and we've called Dr. Varon again. Welcome back to the program, sir.

VARON: Thank you for having me.

INSKEEP: So we're in this week when the death toll passed 300,000. It's a week when vaccines are spreading. How is your caseload this holiday season?

VARON: Unfortunately, we have - as I predicted, you know, exponentially, we have been increasing. There is no day when I get at least half-a-dozen new patients, critically ill, getting admitted to my COVID unit.

INSKEEP: And you said critically ill, half-a-dozen patients per day, day after day after day. How's the staff holding up?

VARON: Well, you know, just as before, I mean, they are stressed. They are exhausted. I have nurses that in the middle of the day will start crying, just crying, because, you know, the load is notice humongous. They see patients die. Or, you know, they have a lot of work on one patient, and then suddenly when they are finally done with that patient, they hear that they have three more patients waiting for them coming from the emergency room or coming from a transfer from, like you correctly said earlier, you know, from El Paso or from all - any other place that we are helping out.

INSKEEP: We've heard from some hospitals across the country that they - maybe they don't exactly turn people away, but it's slow to admit people. There are delays in care. Maybe other people who need treatment for other things are turned away - problems at least at the edges, if not more. Are you able to care for everyone who shows up needing care?

VARON: We do. But we do have - like all of the hospitals from time to time, we have delays. Sometimes our staff is so stretched that sometimes patient may have to wait in the emergency department for a period of hours instead of rapidly going to the COVID unit.

INSKEEP: What have you thought about as news has spread of the vaccine, the first vaccine inoculations going out?

VARON: Well, you know, the one thing that is important that people need to understand is that the vaccine is not the answer - OK? - not the answer at the present time. And the fact that we're vaccinating people right now is not going to make any difference in what happens to the number of admissions that we're getting over the next few weeks. So, yes, it is important to vaccinate. However, it's not going to fix the problem in the next few weeks.

And remember - we have Christmas coming up. I mean, I am now seeing the effects of what happened in Thanksgiving. I'm getting all those submissions from Thanksgiving. We're going to have the same after Christmas because people are not understanding. People don't understand that having a virtual Christmas is what we need to do this year instead of, you know, ending up in our intensive care units.

INSKEEP: And I even want to say it could be worse after Christmas, right? Because this is an exponential spread, and if we had more people sick over Thanksgiving, that's even more people who might be exposed if people get together again at Christmastime.

VARON: Absolutely, without question about it. And, again, people are dropping their guard. My primary concern is that, again, they think the vaccine is going to fix it and it's going to fix it fast. No, the vaccine will work, but it's going to take time. It's going to be months and more months and probably even years before everybody gets vaccinated. And then we will have control over this pandemic.

INSKEEP: Dr. Anthony Fauci said yesterday on the program that maybe caseloads will start to go down significantly when half the population is vaccinated, which is something that is a good number of months away. Let me ask about your hospital specifically, though. The first people getting vaccinated have been, in many cases, health care workers. Do you know when your staff will get vaccinated?

VARON: I was told by the mayor just a couple of days ago that we're going to be getting our vaccine next week.

INSKEEP: Next week.

VARON: Yes, sir.

INSKEEP: What do the staff have to say about that?

VARON: Oh, they were very happy because they - you know, they were actually kind of annoyed that we didn't make the first round of vaccination. But apparently, that was done on the basis of how big the hospitals are. Our hospital is a small community hospital that has less than a thousand employees, and therefore it was not chosen to receive the vaccine on the first round.

INSKEEP: We've heard about health care workers, along with people in the population at large, who are skeptical about the vaccine. Do you have anybody on your staff who's pushing back?

VARON: Well, gosh. Yesterday, I had a - not a fight, but, you know, I had a friendly argument with more than 50% of my nurses in my unit telling me that they will not get the vaccine. And, you know, of course, I pushed the concept that people should get vaccinated. And I asked, why not? And, you know, at the end of the day, like I have said before, coronavirus has become a political toy, and most of the reasons why most of my people don't want to get the vaccine are politically motivated.

INSKEEP: Do you trust the science when it comes to this vaccine?

VARON: Absolutely. Absolutely.

INSKEEP: You are going to get this vaccine, it sounds like, when you have an opportunity to do so?

VARON: Next week.

INSKEEP: And you have months ahead of working every day?

VARON: Every single day for the last 272 days. No days off.

INSKEEP: And we'll see how many more days to go. Dr. Varon, it's always a pleasure talking with you. Thank you very much.

VARON: Thank you very much for having me.

INSKEEP: Dr. Joseph Varon is the chief of critical care at Houston's United Memorial Medical Center. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.