Coronavirus Briefing: What Happened Today

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A new documentary offers a rare look inside the U.S. hospital system during the early days of the pandemic. The film, “The First Wave,” follows a team of health care workers at a New York City hospital as they confront the unfolding Covid disaster.

I spoke to Matthew Heineman, the film’s director, about the project. Our conversation has been condensed and edited.

What do you think would surprise Americans about the early days of pandemic?

Witnessing it. As the American public, we were so shielded from the realities of what was happening inside hospitals during this time. The Times did an incredible job of documenting it, but for the most part, Americans were shielded from those images. Covid was constantly referred to with wartime language, you know, doctors and nurses on the front lines. But when you look at wars throughout history, there’s images. And I think that’s part of why this issue became so polarized, and why there was so much misinformation, because we didn’t know what was really happening.

What did you learn about Covid while making this film?

Imagine training your entire life to understand the human body in a certain way and everything you’ve learned, and everything that you studied, everything you’d done was just thrown out the window. And that’s what it was like for these doctors and nurses. These people were doing everything they could to keep people alive with no tools or knowledge on how to do so.

Psychologically, it was a really difficult thing to witness. And I think we’re now seeing — a year and a half later — the long-term mental health impacts of that on health care workers. And I think we have the possibility of losing a whole generation of health care workers as a result of what they went through.

Was there a particular moment that resonated with you?

One of our main participants in the film is a nurse, named Brussels Jabon, who tested positive for Covid along with her entire family. She was pregnant, and right after giving birth she was intubated and separated from her baby and struggling to stay alive. The baby wasn’t able to go home because the family was still Covid positive. So their cousins go pick up the baby and drive by the house so that Brussels’s husband, Naph, can see his newborn. And as they drive by, Naph is trying to touch him through the window. That moment will always stick with me. It just it felt so otherworldly. You know — what universe are we living in where this is happening?

I’m going to be honest, before I watched the film, I thought, I don’t know if I’m ready for this.

People are nervous about seeing this film. But I think the experience of coming together and watching it with your family, or in a theater, or however you’re watching it, has been really cathartic for people. And since we’ve been so isolated and so separated, to have the space to reflect on what we’ve been through has been really emotional to see.

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