Jayme Perry of Bentonville, an RN for 19 years, has a message for people: “Just suck it up,” she said in a Facebook post over the weekend, noting that the Fourth of July was just around the corner. “It’s just one Fourth of July. Do not let it be the last Fourth with someone because that someone gets sick.”
Perry has been dividing her time during the COVID-19 pandemic between Northwest Medical Center in Springdale, where she works in the ER, and St. Vincent’s Medical Center in Bridgeport, Conn., which was inundated with COVID-19 patients who were commuters into New York. Like other medical professionals from Northwest Arkansas, which was Arkansas’s hot spot in June, she’s been using Facebook as a forum to urge people to wear face masks and take other safety measures to stay well and keep people around them well.
On June 10, after a day at work in the ER at Northwest Medical Center, Perry made a video from her car when she returned home at 10:30 p.m., her hair still covered by a bandana and, she said, very tired. She tried to be lighthearted in her urgings that people take care, but began to weep over a patient she’d lost that day. The patient, she told the Times in an interview Wednesday from the East Coast, had been hospitalized and very sick, but had seemed to recover and was released. Within a week after her release, the patient returned to the hospital, and died in the ER. The patient was younger than Perry, who is only 43.
The patient was not the youngest Perry has seen die from the novel coronavirus: An infant was.
“I think so many times if I could stand on the top of a building and scream it 24/7, I would,” Perry told the Times of her attempts to get people to put on a mask and keep their distance. “It would be more effective … the more effective way is for people to see [the sick and dying], but because of privacy laws, we can’t let them see it.”
Instead, she said, she’s fighting a battle against forces “that have persuaded people that masks don’t work, that this is not going to get them, or that you have to be a specific age or a specific ethnicity or work at a specific place.” She begs people in her videos and posts — while acknowledging that she is likely preaching to the choir on such forums — to consider the cascade effect of spread among people who’ve been gathering unsafely and to also consider the stress that hospitals are under in taking care of the sick and dying.
In her latest video, made June 29 from Connecticut, Perry talks about a nurse at her workplace who was so overwhelmed by her patient load during the COVID-19 peak there that she had to decide which of her patients she was going to give the most attention to. She adds she wouldn’t want her family’s care to be triaged that way. “I don’t want that to be one of my loved ones.”
“Whenever I’m in Springdale,” she told the Times, “our rule is never have anybody not make it out of the ER. … And then someone dies. To me, I look at that, that is a preventable death that was not prevented because someone has been too proud, too lazy or just didn’t care.” There is nothing worse, she said, than sending a loved one to the hospital “and never getting to see them walk out.”
Perry is not alone in her pleas to Arkansas’s public to just put on a mask. Governor Hutchinson at a press conference last week read aloud a post by Cheyenne Bright, an RN at Washington Regional, which like Northwest Medical Center has seen such a dangerous spike in COVID-19 hospitalizations — a 350 percent increase in the first week in June — that its COO put out a warning message to the public. “To the people who think COVID isn’t real, or isn’t ‘serious,’ ” RN Bright wrote, “I just want to let you know it is very real and very serious. I spent the day comforting a dying patient, so they would know they weren’t alone. This patient, who was perfectly fine six days ago. This patient, who did not have underlying conditions, this patient who is now not perfectly fine. COVID doesn’t care about your age, your gender, where you’re from or what ethnicity you are. If you have lived a good healthy life or haven’t. It doesn’t matter. It can affect anyone. So be safe and be mindful. Wear your mask, if not for yourself do it for others.”
Dr. Allen Moseley, a Fayetteville pulmonologist, has also taken to Facebook. His long post begins “1. COVID-19 is not fake news. Anyone you see not wearing a mask or spewing misinformation that the effects of coronavirus are overblown is incorrect. They haven’t seen families (mother, father, sister) devastated in a number of weeks. They haven’t listened heartbroken as a daughter tells them how unbelievable it all is, that their father was completely fine two weeks ago. They haven’t used high dose sedatives and paralytics to force air into lungs that resemble concrete.
“It is true that many people with this virus recover with minimal symptoms. Many people (maybe up to 20%) have ZERO symptoms. And yet, those who are affected quickly become the sickest patients that I have cared for in my career.”
Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont issued a mask mandate in his state April 20. The outbreak there has been so severe that more than 4,000 people have perished. Perry posted on her Facebook page the result of that order, as reported in the Hartford Courant on June 30: Connecticut administered 21,416 COVID-19 tests in a single day, a record high. Of those, 152 came back positive, for a positivity rate of 0.7 percent, a record low.
Governor Hutchinson has so far declined to mandate the wearing of masks, even in the face of the state’s new spike in cases — today’s 878 was a record — and an infection rate at above 10 percent. He has said he trusts Arkansans to do the right thing, though he acknowledges he’s seen people becoming “complacent” about safety measures in regard to the the virus and knows, too, that there is sometimes angry opposition to mask wearing from people who, encouraged by an unmasked President Trump, have chosen to see it a political statement.
Whether Arkansas can contain its transmission rate with contact tracing — which is still operating understaffed — and encouragement only is yet to be seen. As The Washington Post reported Monday, scientists believe that a mutation in the novel coronavirus is making it more infectious. Perry believes that as well, “by judging what we saw at the beginning. It’s changing.” The mutation is occurring on the spikes that circle the virus (the source for the name “coronavirus”); Perry likens the virus’ latching on to cells in the body to a “cockleburr on your leg. That’s what I think of. Your best bet is not to get it.”
Perry’s also concerned that people are unaware of the lasting effects the virus is shown to have, effects that Secretary of Health Dr. Nate Smith noted in his Wednesday press update on COVID-19 as a way of stressing to a resistant Arkansas populace the importance of wearing a mask. The Times has also reported on these effects — including blood clots, cardiac issues and psychiatric and physical problems from spending long periods sedated and on a ventilator — but it was the first time Smith publicly addressed the long-term damage the virus can do. Being on a ventilator is tremendously debilitating: Perry said she’s seen patients too weak to lift their hands to touch their faces, “much less feed themselves.” They require weeks, maybe months, of rehab, and the impact is emotional and financial as well as physical. The virus has “opened up a Pandora’s box” of ailments, she said, releasing “such a multitude of problems that are going to follow, that could have been avoided.”
Perry, whose contract with St. Vincent took her back to Connecticut on June 21 so the exhausted nurses there could take a break, will return to Arkansas and her family in two weeks. One of the conversations the family will have: Whether her son returns to high school for his senior year. “I honestly don’t think we’ll have a full semester. I don’t see how it’s going to happen.”