An intensive care unit (ICU) doctor in Houston who has treated coronavirus patients for more than 250 consecutive days is going viral for a simple act of compassion.
Dr. Joseph Varon, chief of staff at United Memorial Medical Center, was captured embracing a man with COVID-19 while working in the ICU on Thanksgiving Day.
Dressed in full personal protective equipment (PEE), the photo, taken by a photographer with Getty, shows Varon hugging the man, whose face is hidden from the camera, his head nestled in the crook of Varon’s arm. One of the patient’s arms is seemingly wrapped around Varon, hugging him back.
“He was very sad because he’s in a room where he knows nobody,” Varon told “Good Morning America” of the viral moment. “We come in dressed like astronauts, and even though I usually have my picture with me so they can know who I am when I go to see them, it’s very frustrating for the patients, and he was very emotional.”
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Varon, who leads the hospital’s COVID-19 unit, said he hugged the man, who was not identified, “just as I heard [his emotion].”
Varon also told “Good Morning America” of his grueling days at the hospital, as the photo was taken on his 252nd consecutive day treating coronavirus patients. Days are often 16 hours, he said, and some nights he does not return home. Even if he is able to, “I get a million phone calls in the middle of the night.”
“We’re frustrated because we see people, they come in very, very sick and when you ask them, ‘How did you get [COVID-19]?’ they basically tell you that they didn’t follow any of the things that we’ve been asking them to please follow — no social distancing, no wearing masks, going to large gatherings,” he said. “And then just coming to us near death.”
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The photo comes as the U.S. has recorded more than 13,500,000 cases to date, with total deaths nearing 270,000 as of Tuesday morning, according to estimates from Johns Hopkins University.
The U.S. late last week reported a new record high in coronavirus-related hospitalizations, with some 90,481 people hospitalized due to the virus on Thanksgiving, according to estimates from the COVID Tracking Project, an increase of 522 from the day prior.
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Health officials across the country have warned of a surge in cases of the deadly virus following Thanksgiving, with the nation’s top infectious disease expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci, saying there will “almost certainly be an uptick” related to holiday travel.
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In fact, despite warnings from health officials to limit holiday travel, an estimated 1,070,967 people went through Transportation Security Administration (TSA) checkpoints on the day before Thanksgiving this year, the highest levels seen since March. (However, the estimates were still lower than the same day in years past.)
“We are exhausted. We are tired,” Varon continued, speaking of his fellow medical workers. “I have nurses [who] are in the middle of the day crying because they keep on getting patients and there are just not enough nurses that can help us.”
Fox News’ Alexandria Hein contributed to this report.