Shannon Thompson, a midcoast Maine native, is an emergency department nurse in Washington state, close to where the novel coronavirus pandemic began in the United States. Credit: Courtesy of Shannon Thompson

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BELFAST, Maine — When Shannon Thompson decided in her 40s that she wanted to change careers from real estate to nursing, it was because she wanted to help people.

The Camden native, who now works as an emergency department nurse in Bellingham, Washington, has found herself in an appropriate place for that. The trauma center where she works is 90 miles north of the Seattle suburb where the first confirmed case in the United States of the novel coronavirus was announced in January, and where the nation’s first confirmed death from it occurred just a month later.

[Our COVID-19 tracker contains the most recent information on Maine cases by county]

As of Wednesday, Washington state reported 2,469 confirmed cases and 123 deaths. With a recent outbreak in a Bellingham nursing home, Thompson, 52, fears we’re at the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the toll that the virus will take.

“Those of us who are tracking this are really concerned that in the next two weeks, three weeks, that we’re looking up at a tremendous wave that’s about to crash upon us,” she said, adding that she fears U.S. health care workers on the front lines of fighting the virus will be among the hardest hit. “I think every single person who works here, we’re all assuming that we’re exposed.”

In Maine, which had 142 confirmed coronavirus cases in 10 counties as of Wednesday, several health care workers have tested positive. Those include a nurse at Waldo County General Hospital in Belfast, a health care provider at one of Lewiston’s two hospitals, and a worker at Northern Light Mercy Hospital in Portland. An employee of a Kennebunk cancer treatment center and an employee of the VA Maine Health Care System have also tested positive.

It’s a lot to take in, Thompson said, but despite the danger and stress, she’s where she wants to be.

“I’d be going out of my mind if I had to sit at home doing nothing but worrying,” she said.

Still, she has major concerns about the country’s lack of preparation for such a contagious virus, including a dangerous lack of test kits nationwide.

“It seems to me that the scarcity of test kits is driving the decisions to test or not, rather than the condition of the patients,” she said.

At her emergency department, even if patients come in with symptoms of COVID-19, they aren’t tested unless they meet the strict criteria.

“Their symptoms are treated and they’re sent home again,” she said. “It’s insane. It is absolutely insane to me, in a Level 2 trauma center, in a city in the United States in 2020, in the face of a deadly global pandemic, that this is our country’s response.”

Another huge worry? The lack of personal protective equipment available for health care workers.

At her hospital, Thompson and others have been limited to one N95 mask per day, and are worried they will run out of supplies this week. Back home in Camden, her mother’s quilting group has come together to sew fabric masks for Thompson and her coworkers. It’s an amazing gesture to make the nurses feel loved and supported, she said — but it’s far from ideal.

“It’s kind of also a worst-case scenario thing, and we haven’t really even started yet,” she said. “I would rather have a hand-sewn cloth mask on my face than nothing at all, but it won’t stop airborne particles from getting into our respiratory system.”

Thompson and other health care workers are urging those with N95 masks to donate them to the health care system. As well, she would love for people to call their legislators and let them know that the situation is untenable.

[Not all who want to get a coronavirus test can. Here’s why, and what to do if you can’t.]

“I feel like we’re at a point where the virus is enough of a threat, where we need to see a major wartime effort, with companies shifting production,” Thompson said. “It’s not a joke.

The death rate of health care workers in Italy from coronavirus is 8 percent, Aljazeera reported, citing data from the country’s top health agency.

“I look around and say, which one of us will die?” she said. “When doctors and nurses are scared, you know it’s legit.”

She has noticed that many people — though not all — are heeding calls to stay at home and practice social distancing in an effort to slow the transmission of the virus. In the emergency department, most people are not coming in unless they really need to be there, which is what healthcare workers want to see.

“We’re so grateful that people are heeding the message,” Thompson said, adding that she has seen troubling sights, too. “I see people in the park just hanging out and touching each other’s Frisbees and wrestling each other’s children. Worrisome.”

That’s because the nurse is quite sure of one thing — that the pandemic will get worse before it gets better.

“We’re just waiting for the surge, really,” she said. “People need to settle in for the long haul… we’re not going to have to keep our distance from each other indefinitely, but we’re going to have to do it for a period of time. It probably already feels too long, but too bad. Hundreds of thousands of lives depend on it.”

Watch: What older adults need to know about COVID-19