Six Feet: Top Nurse at MGH Sounds the Call for Better Social Distancing in Charlestown

Charlestown’s Debbie Burke has made the walk from Mass General Hospital (MGH) to her home in Charlestown for years, but late last week and into this week she has been alarmed by what she is seeing.

The carefree gathering of many adults was in stark contrast to the dire situation she is seeing daily at the hospital where many young adults – not just older adults – are being admitted to the Intensive Care Unit (ICU) with severe symptoms of COVID-19.

Nurses and health workers on the front lines pose for a photo with Charlestown’s Debbie Burke, the senior vice president of patient care and chief nurse at Mass General Hospital. Burke said she is alarmed at the lack of seriousness in the Town for practicing social distancing. She said these providers on the front lines are counting on residents to be smart and safe. She is worried people aren’t getting that message clearly enough.

“I have to wonder if people understand social distancing, and that it’s being physically distant from others by at least six feet,” she said. “I wonder if they understand why we’re doing this…Another thing that really needs a response is there is this sense that young people, especially those under 50, if they get COVID-19 it won’t be severe and they’ll get quickly over it or maybe they won’t get it at all. It’s definitely being seen as an older person’s disease now. I really am worried because that’s not what we’re seeing.

“Of course, older people, due to age, have a different immune system so they are at greater risk and so are people who have compromised immune systems,” she continued. “You could be asymptomatic and carry this disease to others. We are also seeing young people who are getting very, very sick and they are in their 20s, 30s and 40s. We have to take drastic social distancing measures…This is going to get worse and we will see that. However, now is our opportunity to level the curve by staying home.”

Burke, the senior vice president for Patient Care and Chief Nurse at MGH, is on the very front lines and shares a great deal of the worries that the nurses under her supervision feel. After a difficult shift last week, she said she was heart-broken to walk back to her long-time home in Charlestown and see people hanging out like it was business as usual. At some of the restaurants, they were outside and congregating closely as they waited for food. Others jogged with large groups, and some played basketball on the courts.

“I saw them hanging out together and having a good old time,” she said. “It was so staggering, a total shock, to me. I think by this time they should know what we’ve been saying about social distance and why we’re doing it. It has to be now and not later. It has to be serious. We don’t want to be the next New York.”

Burke said the situation at MGH is one where more and more patients are starting to come in and inundate the hospital. It’s the same thing that hospitals all over the state are seeing.

“We’re seeing some very, very sick people,” she said. “We are seeing the numbers of patients going up and up every day. We are planning for the worst. We’ve been planning for disasters for a long time. We have a good Emergency Response team but clearly this isn’t anything that we all prepared for – it kind of came out of nowhere.”

She said they are planning to test many more people and also to have more people on ventilators – and the actions of those on the outside of the hospital has everything to do with protecting healthcare workers like Burke and her large numbers of nurses and respiratory therapists who are treating people who are so sick.

“When you’re seeing the actual front lines every day, you have a much greater appreciation for this and for the call to social distance than those who may not see these things,” she said. “If you go out for a run, you shouldn’t be running with other people. I saw people running very closely together in large groups the other day. Also, if you’re waiting for your food outside of a restaurant, you should wait six feet apart. Don’t congregate while you wait…There is an opportunity to make a difference now and if we wait, it will be too late. That’s why I’m so worried.”


Burke said if anyone does start to show symptoms, and feels like they might have COVID-19, they are not alone on their journey and it’s not a time to panic.

She said gateways have been set up and medical professionals are prepared to take care of patients, even when they don’t need to go to the hospital – as many do recover at home with rest.

The first thing to do is to contact a primary care doctor, and they will evaluate the symptoms and potentially send one for testing at a test site.

“It really is about monitoring and treating the symptoms you would do like with any other virus,” she said. “If you have a fever, take something to reduce the fever. It’s really symptom management and keeping hydrated.”

She said 60 percent of the MGH’s outpatient visits are now being handled with tele-medicine…It is important to call your provider if you feel like you have it because if you get worse, we will want to hospitalize you.”

Providers will continue to follow up with their patients, which is part of the remote monitoring program that many health care providers have instituted very quickly in the last several weeks.

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