Updated on December 7, 2020 at 1:07 p.m. ET.
IOWA CITY, IOWA—Nick Klein knew the man wasn’t going to make it through the night. So the 31-year-old nurse at the University of Iowa ICU put on his gown, his gloves, his mask, and his face shield. He went into the patient’s room, held a phone to his ear, and tried hard not to cry while he listened to the man’s loved ones take turns saying goodbye. When they were finished, Klein put on some music, a muted melody like you might hear in an elevator. He pulled up a chair and took the man’s hand. For two hours that summer night, there were no sounds but soft piano and the gentle beep beep beep of the monitors. Klein thought about how he would feel if the person in the bed were his own father, and he squeezed his hand tighter. Around midnight, Klein watched as the man took one last, ragged breath and died.
“I still don’t know if I’ve fully processed everything that’s going on,” Klein told me the day before Thanksgiving, as we talked about what the past few weeks and months at the hospital have been like. And with COVID-19 infections skyrocketing in his state, he added, “I don’t know when I will.”
To visit Iowa right now is to travel back in time to the early days of the coronavirus pandemic in places such as New York City and Lombardy and Seattle, when the horror was fresh and the sirens never stopped. Sick people are filling up ICUs across the state. Health-care workers like Klein are being pushed to their physical and emotional limits. On the TV in my parents’ house in Burlington, hospital CEOs are begging Iowans to hunker down and please, for the love of God, wear a mask. This sense of new urgency is strange, though, because the pandemic isn’t in its early days. The virus has been raging for eight months in this country; Iowa just hasn’t been acting like it.