Atlanta Family Is On The Frontlines Of The Coronavirus NPR's Noel King talks to married couple — epidemiologist Rachel Patzer and physician Justin Schrager, who is living in the garage to avoid bringing home the coronavirus.

Atlanta Family Is On The Frontlines Of The Coronavirus

Atlanta Family Is On The Frontlines Of The Coronavirus

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NPR's Noel King talks to married couple — epidemiologist Rachel Patzer and physician Justin Schrager, who is living in the garage to avoid bringing home the coronavirus.


We have been hearing a lot about how hard the coronavirus is on health workers. This morning I'm talking to two doctors in Atlanta. They are married to each other, and they have three little kids. They live in the same house, and they're both at home. But they haven't been in the same room for almost two weeks. That's because they are among the people across the country who are responding to the coronavirus pandemic.

Justin Schrager is an emergency physician at Emory University Hospital. And Rachel Patzer is an epidemiologist at Emory University. Good morning, guys.

RACHEL PATZER: Good morning.

JUSTIN SCHRAGER: Good morning.

KING: So Justin, where are you in the family house, and why are you separated from your wife and kids?

SCHRAGER: (Laughter) I am living in a small apartment attached to our garage. The reason I'm out here is that we have a newborn in the house. And given the sort of asymptomatic stage and sort of the inconsistency of this virus, we decided as a family that it would be better for me to live out here just to protect the baby, primarily, and the rest of the family, of course.

KING: Rachel, I wonder how that's been for you. You have a newborn and - do I have this right? - a 4-year-old and a 6-year-old.

PATZER: Yes. That's correct. So I'm an epidemiologist professionally. But right now, of course, I'm a full-time mom on maternity leave and caring for our three children. So it's been challenging. I'm up every few hours with the newborn baby, getting our 4- and 6-year-old ready for home schooling - they're home now - and then basically doing everything else one-handed because our newborn really just wants to be held right now.

So you know, right now I'm doing this all without Justin. And that's definitely a struggle to, you know, do not only the work at home but also, you know, I'm worried about Justin's safety and well-being, of course, knowing that he's at risk of getting exposed because of his work.

KING: How are you coping? What are you doing to take care of yourself and the kids?

PATZER: Well, there's not much me time right now. But...



PATZER: ...You know, trying to enjoy the moments with my kids that, you know, we're all home and together - even though Justin's not here with us, trying to, you know, enjoy the moments with the kids and the newborn baby. So you know, coping, it's just really getting through and surviving at this point until the baby sleeps a little bit better and I can get a little bit more rest.

KING: Justin, I wonder if you can tell us what you're seeing inside of the emergency room on kind of a day-to-day basis.

SCHRAGER: Yeah. I mean, the emergency department has been busy - not quite as busy as I've seen before. But we're just seeing a whole lot of people with coronavirus-type illnesses. It's a high-stress place. I think, you know, my colleagues around the country have, you know, been spreading the message that they lack protective equipment. I've been fortunate to have good support from our hospital leadership and my emergency department leadership. And we're being stewards of our protective equipment to the degree that we can. So I feel fairly safe, as much as one can during this outbreak.

But it's scary. And you know, a lot of my colleagues - a lot of my nurses and doctors I work with, techs, the people that clean the rooms - everyone from top to bottom has been making sacrifices. And it's tough because we don't know - we really don't know when this virus is going to burn itself out. I mean, I feel like we're in the sprint phase right now. And we're going to be moving into the marathon phase relatively soon. And I think it's going to - above all, I think it's going to tax our resiliency as health care workers, you know, especially lacking the, you know, support systems we're used to at home.

KING: Rachel, I want to ask you - when you hear Justin talk about what's going on at work, I'm sure you worry. But I also wonder, is there some part of you that sort of wishes you could be doing your job? I know we've heard from a lot of people who say being cooped up in the house means extra time with the kids. And that is lovely. But frankly, I'm a professional. You're an epidemiologist. Do you have that frustration?

PATZER: Right. Yeah, definitely. I mean, I think I'm supposed to return to work part-time in a couple of weeks now. And it's hard not to be on email and trying to get involved and do what I can. I'm doing what I can from the sidelines, trying to, you know, engage the community and, you know, do what I can in terms of - on social media to spread the public health message around staying home and, you know, flattening the curve. But it's difficult. I would like to be doing research and doing my job as well, too.

KING: Rachel, we actually were able to get in touch with you because of a note that you put up on social media describing what your family was going through. And I want to put this question to both of you. Rachel, we'll start with you. You are making these big sacrifices. And I want to ask you what you might tell the people who are listening, many of whom are wondering - what should I be doing right now?

PATZER: Yeah. I think a lot of people are making sacrifices right now in their personal lives. And I think thinking about the additional sacrifices that health care workers and first responders and others that are still working and have to continue, you know, working in our society and helping to minimize the demand on the health care system - that we really need to, you know, listen to public health and medical advice. We need to stay home. We need to listen to the public health advice to do as much as we can to protect the community and minimize the demand on the health care system.

KING: And because you guys are in separate parts of the house this morning, I wonder - and because it's been a while since you've seen each other or touched each other - I wonder, what message do you have for each other this morning?

SCHRAGER: (Laughter) Hang in there, Rach (ph). It's going to be OK. I love you.

PATZER: Yeah. And, I mean, for Justin, I think, I'm just so proud of what he's doing. And even though we're not physically together, I think just reminding him that what he's doing is really important. And I think our children someday will really recognize what he's given up, this sacrifice for the community, and just how important that is. And so though it's really hard right now, I think in the long term, this will be OK, and the kids are going to understand.

KING: Justin, can I ask you lastly and just real quickly - advice to listeners who are wondering what they should be doing. You're seeing this on the ground day to day. What would you like people to know and to do?

SCHRAGER: Stay safe. Protect vulnerable people - the elderly, people with medical conditions. Wash your hands. If everyone listened to Dr. Fauci and the public health experts that are telling you what to do - stay at home, isolated, social distance - we'd be out of this pandemic much faster and we could all go back to business as usual. You know, we're happy to do it as health care workers. We're happy to help you. But please support us and our families by listening to us.

KING: Yeah. Rachel Patzer via telephone and Justin Schrager, her husband, who was on Skype. They joined us from two different parts of their home because Justin is in self-quarantine.

Thank you both so much for your time and for all the work you're doing.

PATZER: Thank you for having us.

SCHRAGER: Thanks for having us.


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