WARWICK, R.I. (WPRI) — Even with fewer than 300 patients who tested positive for COVID-19 currently in local hospitals, health care workers are still prepared for a surge that could dramatically spike in the coming weeks.

The work day begins at 7 a.m. for Kent Hospital Registered Nurse Mardea Halley, whose career began three and a half years ago.

“I never would’ve imagined anything like this happening,” Halley said. “We studied pandemics in school, but with no idea what that could mean.”

Halley’s first task of the day is taking her own temperature, followed by filling out a questionnaire and confirming she is free of symptoms that could be related to coronavirus, or any other illness.

She then teams up with another registered nurse and a certified nursing assistant (CNA) to check on patients, including several with the virus that has killed 171 Rhode Islanders.

One nuance she’s noticed when she walks in a hospital room is her personal protective equipment seems to almost alarm patients and make them realize the severity of the virus.

“They have to be in a closed room by themselves,” Halley said. “It’s hard. We tell them we are here for them and that if they need anything we’re one room away.”

None of her patients have required ventilators so far, but she said the labored breathing tied to even less severe cases or even patients who are recovering can be startling.

“That is the worst symptom,” Halley said.

The details of what she sees on a shift lead to a lot of questions from friends and family but there’s one she has not heard.

“I haven’t been asked if I’m afraid of dying yet,” Halley said.

The answer is “yes.”

“But it’s not something you stop and think about, like this really could happen,” Halley said. “I think it’s just too scary to confront reality.”

Among many Rhode Islanders, whether they’re in the health care field or not, there is a concern about the much talked about surge that prompted Gov. Gina Raimondo’s administration to spend millions of dollars to lease three buildings for makeshift, overflow hospitals — just in case.

(Over the weekend, Raimondo backed off a projection that between 2,250 and 4,300 people could need hospitalization by next week or the beginning of May.)

Halley said she and her colleagues are still prepared for the worst-case scenario.

“It’s hard to imagine, but it could happen. Look at the rest of the world, or other states,” Halley said. “I hope the influx doesn’t happen.”

If it does, she is not convinced the health care system is prepared.

“There are going to be some nurses who are not going to have what they need,” Halley said. “And then there will be some who do. So I feel it’s going to be 50-50.”

Her three-day a week, 12 hour shifts end around 7 p.m., but there’s more work before she walks through her door at home.

“I make sure I take off all my scrubs, all my nursing clothing, before I even enter the house because I have a newborn at home,” Halley said. “So it’s pretty scary. The last thing I want to do is bring something home.”

That pressure and the rigors of helping the infected heal was enough to make her question her career choice a matter of weeks into the crisis.

“But when I think that way, I realize, there’s nothing else I want to be but a nurse,” Halley said. “It’s kind of just taking it one day at a time. I try to pray a lot. I feel it’s out of our hands at times and I just hope for the best, and this time will pass.”

Send tips to Target 12 Investigator Walt Buteau at wbuteau@wpri.com and follow him on Twitter @wbuteau.