Dr. John Murray, a Seminole County EMS Medical Director, spent three weeks in California serving on the COVID-19 front lines treating hundreds of patients from the Grand Princess cruise ship.
Murray lived and worked on a military base treating passengers who were sick and quarantined after leaving the ship last month.
At first Murray said he did not believe the coronavirus was a big deal.
"I had my real doubts, like a lot of people do. I get it. How is this different than the flu?" he said.
But he quickly changed his mind after treating sick patients.
Murray is a member of one of Florida’s Disaster Medical Assistance Teams which responds to disasters across the country.
He got a call on March 5 to go to Miramar Air Station in San Diego, California to treat passengers who were quarantining for two weeks after leaving the coronavirus-hit Grand Princess cruise ship.
He said 500 passengers were sent to the base and living in two hotels called the "hot zones."
"Then they had grounds outside of those with the big fence all the way around it with federal marshals out there. They were great too. They helped us a lot and patrolling and that was the intermediate zone," Murray said. "And on the other side of the fence we considered the clean zone. This is where we set up our tents, where we had our medical supplies and where we hung out."
Murray said at first they did not have enough personal protective equipment and gear. They had to reuse some of the personal protective equipment until more supplies arrived from local, state and federal governments.
“The first few days were a little bit hectic, but what I got to say is by about day four or five ... the cavalry came in,” he said. “We got reinforcements. We got a lot of good help.”
Murray said they would check everyone's temperatures everyday and treated all of the passengers as if they were COVID-19 positive.
Murray said per protocol, two healthcare workers in full PPE would enter the passengers' rooms. One healthcare worker was there to treat the patients and the other healthcare worker was acting as a safety person who monitored the other person's actions.
“That’s why the safety person was there to be sure if I had a break in PPE, he would tell me and it was to watch for that,” Murray said. “I want somebody 6 feet behind me to see do I break PPE. Did I touch my mask? Did I touch my nose? Did I touch my ear?”
Murray couldn’t speak specifically about patients he treated but he recalled a couple who both tested positive for coroanvirus. The wife was asymptomatic but her husband was severely sick and hospitalized. He declined to be intubated.
Despite his wife testing positive, Murray said local health officials were able to let her see her husband in the hospital.
"We were able to get her in and she's COVID positive and this is almost impossible, even though she's asymptomatic. Put her all in PPE. I sent her with a nurse, one of the best nurses, and they went to see him and they went for three or four days and they turned him around," Murray said.
He said the COVID positive patients' symptoms ranged from severe respiratory distress to nothing.
"He was right next to wanting to be intubated, that's how bad he was. She didn't feel a thing," he said. "And that's the scary thing about it. That's the gamut that this thing runs."
Murray worked on the base for three weeks. In that time he said at least 38 people tested positive for the coronavirus and one person died.
He is bringing what he saw on the front lines back to Central Florida.
"I went up there thinking this is just people overreacting, but after going for three weeks among all these folks and seeing this and I saw this, I'm telling people I called up and I said, 'I'm sorry,'" Murray said. "I told my family don't worry about it. I called them and said, 'I'm sorry I was wrong.' This is really the real deal that we have to take seriously."
He adds everyone needs to do their part to stop the spread.
"From a previous non-believer, I'm saying let's all protect yourself. Let's protect other people," Murray said. "We've got to stay together. We'll get through this. We will get through it, but we've got to stick together and in the end this will be okay, but we've got to stick together."
Murray said he was cleared to return to work after coming home but he self-isolated for a week to be safe. He has been tested three times and they have all come back negative.
Murray said that he is currently working on plans to go to New York City to help healthcare workers.