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WFAE's Social Distancing series looks at how the COVID-19 pandemic has changed the way we live, work, learn and connect with each other. The series is hosted by reporter Sarah Delia.

Social Distancing: Helping Keep COVID-19 Patients At Home, Not The Hospital

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Aaron Hopping has been a paramedic for about 20 years. So the 42-year-old is used to entering people's homes in emergency, stress-ridden situations. In the past, that’s meant responding to 911 calls. Now, he’s entering the homes of COVID-19 patients as part of the Atrium Health Hospital at Home program.

"We go to people's homes who have COVID who have come through the emergency room usually," he said. "And we do a little bit more intensive hands-on stuff with them at home to help ensure that they are able to stay at home and then don’t need to take up a room at the hospital, where we can put someone who is sicker than they are."

Before he heads inside each residence, he puts on fresh PPE — including eye protection, masks, gloves, and what’s known as a "bunny suit" — a disposable coverall that zips up.

"The first ones that came were white and had a hood. So you look like a big white fluffy bunny going around," Hopping said.

He checks their medications, collects vital signs, sets up video chats with doctors—he can even do lab work and administer fluids through an IV right in someone’s living room. These patients are often isolated. Hopping, brings them medical care, but also human contact.

"We’ll spend as much time at a patient’s house as we need," he said. "Sometimes we're there for 10 or 15 minutes if they’re not very sick. If they are really sick and we have to do a lot, we might be there an hour, plus."

Many of their stories stick with him, including a cancer patient who also had COVID-19.

"She needed a lot of reassurances," he said. "She needed her hand held at the beginning for awhile. It was hitting her really hard emotionally, she was having a hard time dealing with it."

As the weeks went on and her health continued to improve at home, so did her outlook.

"Watching her progress through the process of getting better and her attitude changing through the process and her getting to the point where she felt like she actually was getting better — that was really cool to see," Hopping said.

Of course, that’s not always the case. He recalls another patient who was struggling to breathe. It go so bad, Hopping called an ambulance to transport the patient to the emergency room. The man asked if he could put a shirt on before the ambulance arrived. Hopping said sure, no problem.

"His oxygen level was hovering right around I think 90%, on oxygen. And then just the effort of putting his shirt on, his oxygen dropped down into the 70s which is incredibly low," Hopping said. "Seeing someone with the illness and watching how bad it was — just putting his shirt on, how rough it was for him, that was a big eye-opener for me."

Hopping is knowingly walking into households where the person he’s about to treat has COVID-19. He’s walking into the fire many of us have been fortunate enough to sidestep by staying home. But he feels prepared. He knows what he needs to do to stay protected.

"They know that they have COVID and they are doing what they need to do to protect me from them," he said. "Versus say being out in public somewhere and it’s a game of 'who knows,' you don't know if anybody is sick. There are plenty of people who don't see a need to take precautions for others."

Those who aren’t taking the pandemic seriously he says, have been a big source of frustration.

"The thing that has surprised me the most is how so many people have ignored how bad this thing really is," he said. "And that’s frustrating because those of us who worked in health care when this whole thing started, we saw what was happening and knew what was going to happen."

Hopping estimates he’s been in at least 100 homes to treat COVID-19 patients. His exposure to the virus, like so many health care workers, is high.

He’s yet to have a COVID-19 scare but he’s thought about how he would isolate himself from his wife and daughter if he tested positive.

"My idea is to basically just lock myself into my bedroom because we have a bathroom off the bedroom, and just living in there until I get through what I need to get through," he said.

Hopefully, it won’t come to that. He’s anxiously awaiting a vaccine like so many others and is hopeful it will help slow the spread of the virus. But he does worry that people aren’t being as cautious as they once were — almost as if the prospect of a vaccine is giving the illusion that life will be back to normal very soon.

"It’s frustrating, it’s tiring, and no one wants to have to do all the stuff we are doing any more and I will count myself among that number for sure," he said. "I’ve had similar thoughts, 'OK, the vaccine is coming, we’re almost over with all this stuff.' But we’re not. We’ve got a ways to go still."

So he echoes the refrain of so many health care workers as the country waits for a vaccine: wash your hands, stay socially distant, wear a mask. That’s the best way to show appreciation for health care workers.

"I would much rather everybody ran around wearing a mask and doing what they are supposed to be doing then going, ‘Oh gosh, you’re such a hero for what you’re doing,’" he said. "None of us are doing it to be heroes. We’re doing it because we want to help people, we want to care for people.

"We just ask that people help take care of us, too."

How has your life changed since the coronavirus outbreak? Are you interacting with people differently? Are you able to visit loved ones? Are you delaying major life events like a wedding? Share your stories by leaving us a voicemail at 704-916-9114.

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What questions do you have about the coronavirus? What has this experience been like for you? Share your questions below.

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