New world order: Reflecting on a year of COVID


I remember sitting at the pool in San Diego. I had been there before many years prior – one of my first medical conferences. I remember the clinking of metal sail stays in the morning breeze.

Dr. Rebecca Jaffe

Flying out this time I packed a few surgical masks. I guiltily picked up an N95 from the hospital floors the day before leaving, but then left it at home thinking it overkill. I still have it in a ziplock bag a year later – it’s our emergency “what-if-we-have-to-care-for-one-another-with-COVID-in-this-tiny-house-full-of-kids” N95. Not that my husband has been fit tested. At the time, neither was I.

I returned after the conference to befuddlement over how we might fit test thousands of people, racing COVID to the front door. An overly complicated task, as we didn’t even know who was supposed to be responsible for orchestrating such an effort. We didn’t even know if we could spare the N95s.

Still in California, I sat by the pool wondering if anyone would acknowledge the impending new reality. At the conference we were told “don’t shake hands, don’t touch your face, wash your hands a lot.” I gave a workshop without a mask. I ate dinner in an actual restaurant worried only about gluten free soy sauce. I sat in a lecture hall with almost 5,000 people. I started to have a conversation with a friend from Seattle, but he needed to leave because they found a positive patient in his hospital. I listened to a prerecorded webinar by the pool from our chief safety officer saying there was a plan. I was not reassured.

When we flew home the world had already changed. There were patients in New York now. Masks had appeared in the airport news stand. Yet we breathed the air in the closed space of the red eye and forgot to be concerned. At work that Monday I asked my team – fist to 5, how worried are you about this? Brave faces and side eyes at each other and a lot of 1s or 2s held up in the air. My job this week, I told them, is to get you all to a 5.

I was working with a resident who 2 months prior I had told, as we worked together in the lounge, I don’t think you’re going to China on vacation. She hadn’t gone, of course. I wasn’t going on spring break either. On one of my last train rides a commuter friend (remember those?) told me we’ll all feel a lot better once we realize that none of us are going to get to do any of the things we want to do.

The med students were still there, helping the team and hanging onto their education. I told everyone not to see any patient with a respiratory complaint until we first discussed the case. On the third day of service I had to call infection control because a hypoxic febrile patient had come to the floor without isolation orders. “Are we testing?” No, I was informed, she hadn’t had exposures, hadn’t travelled. Speechless that we were screening for travel to Italy while living with one tiny state between us and the American epicenter, I can now recall thinking that our infection control officer did not sound well rested.

My N95 was still in a baggy at home. The PAPRS hadn’t appeared yet. Literally no one could agree what kind of mask the CDC or infection control or the ID consultant of the day recommended – today we are using surgical masks, I was told. Thursday will likely be different. “Anyway, she doesn’t sound like she has it.” I walked to the floors.

My med student started presenting our septic viral pneumonia patient including the very well done exam that I previously forbade him from obtaining. What happened to not seeing respiratory patients, I asked. Oh, they said, well night float said it didn’t sound like COVID. Insufficiently convinced by our second year resident’s unjustifiably overconfident, though ultimately correct, assessment – I held my head in my hands and give my first hallway COVID chalk talk of the new era. Complete with telling the team to question everything they thought they knew now including everything I said except “be careful.” That was about when Philadelphia ran out of toilet paper.

That weekend I sat in front of a bay of computers as our Medical Officer of the Day. Air traffic control for ED patients coming in for a landing on medical teams, I watched the new biohazard warnings line up indicating respiratory isolation patients waiting for a bed. I watched CRPs and D-dimers, and looked for leukopenia. I vowed I would follow up on tests to hone my COVID illness script. I soon realized that tests lie anyway.

By the end of that week we’d fallen through the looking glass. The old rules didn’t apply. We weren’t going to China, or Arizona; we didn’t know when the med students were coming back; the jobs we had were not the jobs we signed up for but were those that the world needed us to do; we couldn’t trust our intuition or our tests; we had no experts – and yet we started to grow the humble beginnings of expertise like spring garden sprouts.

In a chaotic world, seeds of order take shape and then scatter like a screensaver. The skills needed to manage chaos are different from those that leaders use in simple ordered times. Order cannot be pulled from chaos by force of will or cleverness, nor can it be delegated, cascaded, demanded, or launched. Order emerges when communities that are receptive to learning see patterns through noise, and slowly, lovingly, coax moments of stability into being.

Dr. Jaffe is division director for hospital medicine in the Department of Medicine at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital in Philadelphia.

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