The disconnect is devastating.
“It’s a mixture of emotions, from anger and demoralization to bewilderment and frustration,” Saag said.
Confirmed cases of COVID-19 have increased on average by more than 1,500 per day over the past week in Alabama, bringing the total to more than 62,100 since the pandemic started in March. At least 1,230 people have died, and health officials say less than 15% of the state’s intensive care beds are available for new patients. Some hospitals are running out of space.
It’s not just an Alabama problem. About 400 kilometers from Birmingham, Dr Chad Dowell warns his hospital in tiny Indianola, Mississippi, is filling up, as are others, making it difficult to locate beds for the sickest patients even as people are wondering if the pandemic is real.
Inside the University of Alabama Hospital in Birmingham, doctors and nurses in protective gear rush from one emergency to another. They are struggling to comfort broken-hearted visitors forced to say goodbye to their dying loved ones remotely via cell phone, Saag said, while facing the stress of knowing if they will be infected next.
The sharp rise in confirmed virus cases in Alabama has coincided with the reopening of restaurants, bars, theaters, gyms, sports leagues and churches which were all closed when the virus first struck. Although most opened at reduced capacity and with restrictions in place, many customers did not follow the recommended precautions.
On the Birmingham underground, where Saag lives, it is common to see less than half of the people inside stores wearing masks. The doctor said he was particularly discouraged recently after stopping by a restaurant on his way home from work to take a take-out order for sushi. There were up to 60 people inside, he said.
“Myself and one other person were the only two people wearing masks. And all the others, not only were they not wearing masks, but they were gathering together, “he said. “And they look at me like I’m some sort of outcast wearing a mask.”
In response, Governor Kay Ivey this week ordered all Alabama residents 6 years of age and older to wear masks when in public and within 6 feet (2 meters) of anyone is not a parent. Against a pandemic which has become more and more political, this decision aroused both praise as a potentially vital step and harsh criticism from those who described it as a useless confrontation with freedom.
Saag said he hopes the command will be useful, but it all depends on compliance. Ivey herself has said the rule will be difficult to enforce, and some police and sheriff offices have said they won’t even try.
During the initial outbreak, doctors and nurses were hailed as heroes in the fight against COVID-19. Some say they now feel more like cannon fodder in a war that has become increasingly confrontational.
“People continue to view the virus as a political ploy or a conspiracy theory. People continue to ignore recommended guidelines on how to help slow the spread of the virus. People continue to complain about wearing a mask. We need to do better as a community, ”wrote Dowell, the Mississippi doctor, in a Facebook post from the South Sunflower County Hospital.
For Saag, the fight is personal. In early March, he and his adult son caught the virus after a trip to Manhattan as the epidemic raged there. First there was a cough, followed by fever, headache, body aches and what Saag called a “fuzzy thought” or inability to concentrate.
“In the mornings I would feel good, I thought I was done. And then every night, it would come back as if it was all over again, ”he said. “The hardest part of the night was feeling short of breath and not knowing if it was going to get worse. ”
For eight sweltering nights, Saag wasn’t sure he would survive without a fan. There never was. He is now fully recovered and feels closer than ever to the people he cares for.
“When I talk to a patient and say,” Hey, I have it too, “it’s like we’re connected in a way that I never really, honestly, felt with patients before – and I’ve been doing this for 40 years, “said Saag.
Outside the exam room, Saag has participated in press conferences and media interviews to encourage basic public health practices, but he knows that many people just don’t listen.
He said it was disheartening to see widespread disregard for security measures and concerns about Alabama’s future at a time when the virus posed more of a threat than ever.
“I just think,” Oh, my God. We’re going to be in trouble very soon, ”Saag said.