This Anchorage ER nurse is among the growing number of health care workers out sick with COVID-19

A nurse wearing a mask, glasses, a hair net and gown stands in a hospital room.
Greer Gehler is an Anchorage emergency room nurse who recently tested positive for the coronavirus. (Greer Gehler photo)

It started last Friday with a tickle in her throat. Greer Gehler, an emergency room nurse in Anchorage, was on her way home from work.

“I chalked that up to sometimes, after wearing a respirator for 12 or 13 hours straight, you get kind of a sort of irritated cough from just breathing in all that moisture for so long,” Gehler said.

But, by the next day, a scratchy throat turned into a stuffy nose, a cough and swollen lymph nodes. She cried. She got a rapid COVD-19 test. The result came back as she suspected: positive. 

She’s 20 weeks pregnant. 

“I was pretty emotional,” she said. “I’m 37 years old and pregnant, with my first pregnancy, so I’m already high risk, so it’s just a pretty profound fear about complications.” 

By Wednesday, Gehler’s partner, a firefighter, had tested positive too. And Gehler’s symptoms had progressed to body aches and chills. 

Gehler will be out of work for at least 10 days. She’s among a growing number of Alaska health care workers who are out sick, either because they’ve tested positive for the virus or need to quarantine because of close contact with someone who’s infected. Hospital administrators continue to sound the alarm that the increasing absences are leading to serious staffing challenges in an already-strained health care system. 

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Gehler has witnessed it firsthand.

“With more nurses and doctors and everyone down to our housekeepers out sick, that just puts additional strain on the system,” she said. “And not just in my hospital, but kind of all over the state. There’s beds that are open that we can’t put patients in because we don’t have the healthy staff to help those patients.”

The whole situation makes her so angry. 

Even though the number of coronavirus cases in Alaska is rising rapidly, she still sees people not taking the pandemic seriously. 

“People are making personal choices about what they want to do. But then some of us are going to work and doing what we have to do. And we’re getting sick because of their choices,” she said.

She said she tried to make her own safe choices outside of work to avoid the virus.

“I don’t see my family. I don’t see my friends,” she said. “I’ve even stopped doing outdoor activities with friends in case we happen to get too close or are breathing too heavily.”

But she still had to go to the hospital. 

At work, in recent weeks, she said she’s been treating more and more coronavirus patients compared to earlier in the pandemic.

“We’re just kind of swimming in it at work,” she said. “So it does feel like it’s Russian roulette.” 

Even after carefully dressing in protective gear each day — a surgical cap, gown, respirator, gloves, a face shield — she knew her risk of becoming infected was increasing as the percentage of her patients with the virus increased. And she’s treating some of the state’s sickest Alaskans.

“I’m in these small rooms with these patients where the virus is now aerosolized because of these medical procedures we’re doing to try to save their lives,” she said. “And they’re very contagious already. And, you know, so did something get around my mask? Did some droplets fall on my surgical mask then I touched that later? Or did it fall on my neck?”

She can’t say for sure.

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Gehler said she’s sharing her story about becoming infected because she wants more people to follow health guidelines: To wear face masks, to avoid crowds, to keep their distance from people they don’t live with.

She sees the impacts of cavalier behavior at work every day: The younger, fit Alaskans who have gotten the virus and are coming in with heart issues. The older Alaskans who have the coronavirus and are so sick they’re delirious.

“When we see one or two deaths reported, what’s not being reported is all the people that we are keeping from dying,” she said, “that are literally dying when they walk through our doors regardless of age and, without serious intensive medical intervention, they would die.”

Gehler said she wants people to remember that their choices have downstream impacts, and could lead to the virus spreading to Alaskans who become so sick they need to be hospitalized or to health care workers, like herself.

Reach reporter Tegan Hanlon at thanlon@alaskapublic.org or 907-550-8447.