Doctor Teresa Amato still remembers March 31 vividly.
Her hospital, Long Island Jewish Forest Hills in Queens, New York, was overwhelmed with coronavirus patients. She realized they needed help from other partners in the Northwell Health system. Slowly ambulances began to arrive to take the ill to other locations, like cavalry aiding in battle.
"It was a really, really tough day," Amato, who is the chair of emergency medicine, recalled. "We had a lot of sick patients."
It was also the birthday of one of her daughters.
"She was very understanding about what was going on," Amato said. "I think what was hard for me was trying not to show how much my work was really weighing on me during that time. It's a tough balance when you're a mom and you're a physician."
Health care professionals were on the frontlines of the coronavirus pandemic when it hit the U.S. in the spring. Now during the second wave, they're still living through that nightmare.
"Although we're prepared, we're disappointed that we have to deal with this again," Staten Island University Hospital emergency room assistant medical director Dr. Ana Van Tuyl said. "It's almost like PTSD from the first time around in the sense that there's a lot of anxiety surrounding this and a lot of fear, not only for me personally but for people coming to work and trying to protect themselves."
In the spring, Van Tuyl dealt with a vast number of coronavirus patients, but there was still very little knowledge about how to treat the disease. With so many unknown factors, she sent her son to live with family for six weeks in the spring to keep him safe. She's continued to social distance from her mother.
One of the hardest parts was seeing her patients without any in-person support during their final minutes.
"There were a lot of end-of-life issues that were difficult to deal with because we couldn't bring the family in for their protection," she said. "It was very sad. Along with the dealing medical aspect of it, there was also the very personal aspect of it, of having patients dying alone."
The coronavirus was and still is terrifying to many doctors, including Van Tuyl's colleague Dr. Eric Cioe-Peña, who has had experience dealing with other global health crises. Staten Island recently had to open a field hospital inside South Beach Psychiatric Center's brand new building to deal with the rise in COVID-19 cases in the area. Within 72 hours Cioe-Peña worked two 24-hour shifts, which means time away from his family. If he has symptoms, he goes straight to the basement or third floor of his house and doesn't interact or talk with anyone.
"When you're dealing with an earthquake or you're dealing with even HIV, there was always kind of this idea that there was safety for the medical professionals," the Staten Island University Hospital director of global health said. "I didn't feel like I was endangering my life or my family's life when I came to work. And that's not the same for COVID."
While it is true there are fewer deaths with the latest wave of COVID-19 thanks to an increased understanding of the virus and how to treat it,, it doesn't mean there are fewer challenges.
"It's not the situation that [it] was in March and April where we had dozens of deaths a day," Cioe-Peña said. "And I'm thankful for that. Because of that we are having longer hospital stays and more people need more attention for longer and that puts a different kind of strain on the health system."
He's frustrated the disease is still so prominent. While the number of COVID-deniers he's dealt with is relatively low, he points out the virus doesn't care that most people are taking the disease seriously. It can affect anyone.
Amato 'has also dealt with people who don't believe the coronavirus is that serious.
"COVID fatigue is real," Amato pointed out. "I think people want this to go away. They want to go back to normal life, so I think some of it is wishful thinking. We wish for this to be not as bad. We want it to go away."
Cioe-Peña understands the plight of local businesses. What hurts them more, though, is to have a superspreader event where patrons get sick or potentially die, he argued.
"We started to get into this mentality that the public health measures are a political orientation or a statement about 'this is more important,'" Cioe-Peña said. "They don't have to be a dichotomy and opposed to one another. Our health will be better and our economy will be better if this virus is at low levels."
Though the first doses of the vaccine have been administered, it will still be a few more months until the U.S. achieves herd immunity, even if most Americans quickly get their doses. The San Francisco Department of Public Health believes most Americans will have access to vaccines in the summer or fall of 2021, the Los Angeles Times reported. By then, there could be several on the market given FDA emergency use authorization, including vaccines from Moderna and Johnson & Johnson, which would speed up manufacturing time.
"I think now is the time to hunker down, try to keep the social distancing, wear your mask, and hand hygiene as much as you can," Amato said. "We're almost there. But it's not going to be an instant cure."
Then there's the question of whether Americans will take the vaccine. A poll by the Kaiser Family Foundation showed that 27 percent of respondents definitely will not or probably will not take the coronavirus vaccine, citing possible side effects, lack of trust in the government's ability to deliver a safe vaccine, and wanting to see how the vaccine affects others first.
Amato pointed out that though the process was called Operation Warp Speed, many of the shortened processes have to do with manufacturing not testing. Cioe-Peña added that the majority of the questions are around how long the vaccines' protection will last and not over its negative effects.
All three doctors said they would take it, and encourage their families to take it, in order to prevent them from getting the coronavirus as well as passing it along to others.
"We will be able to return to normal," Van Tuyl said. "That's why it's important, I think, that there's buy-in from the entire community because you're not only protecting yourself, you're protecting everybody else."