COVID-19: One Year Later

As we mark one year since COVID-19 arrived in Rhode Island, 12 News has special reports-- they’re stories of heartache, heroes and hope.

‘It was very scary’: Local health care workers say past year changed their lives forever

COVID-19 One Year Later

As we approach one year since COVID-19 arrived in Rhode Island, 12 News is bringing you special reports all this week at 6 a.m. and 5 p.m. They’re stories of heartache, heroes and hope.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — For health care workers, there’s been no reprieve from the virus that’s been dominating the headlines and our lives for the past year.

Dr. Vince Varamo is a physician at Kent Hospital’s Emergency Room and the Care New England Field Hospital in Cranston.

“You don’t even get to go to work and forget about it for a little bit, because you go to work to take care of it,” Varamo said.

Varamo recalled one night this past spring where the influx of sick patients was staggering and heartbreaking.

“Within 15 minutes, 10 minutes, you realize you’re going to have to put this patient on a ventilator, and there’s no family that can be in the room with them at this time,” Varamo recalled.

“That was just the beginning of that shift,” he continued. “After seeing several more people during the course of that shift, that was a particularly rough day.”

Westerly Hospital Lab Manager Kerry Kempke is working behind-the-scenes to determine which patients have the virus, and in her 22 years in the field, she tells 12 News she’s never seen anything like it.

“We were definitely frontlines, but in the background,” she said. “This definitely puts into perspective why we do what we do. You always hear about this stuff, you hear about the possibility, you hear it on the news, but you never think it’s going to happen.”

Kempke recalled one night where they were flooded with 500 tests. It was an overwhelming task for her crew that came well after they had identified their first positive case.

“It was scary that, all of a sudden, it was here and that’s how we knew it was here,” she said. “It was very scary, and I know I was scared, and I know my staff was scared, and I said ‘You know, we just have to do what we have to do, this is what we do and we’re going to be OK.'”

Fear, Kempke said, is something she tries to keep out of her mind. But Varamo said it’s important for people to remember health care workers are human too.

“It is mentally draining, but trying to get through this together is essentially what some of us — we go to work and that’s one of the things we look for the most is that camaraderie,” he said. “You feel like after you go through a lot of this, you feel like you can take care of anything after this point.”

Kempke shared the good news that earlier this month they had their first day in a long time where they identified no positive cases. She said it’s not a sign that we’re out of the woods, but it was still a cause for celebration at the lab.

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