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The nurse who treated Wisconsin’s first COVID-19 patient emphasizes importance of masks

The nurse who treated Wisconsin’s first COVID-19 patient emphasizes importance of masks

From the 6 lives disrupted: How COVID-19 changed Madison series
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Covid Profiles Maria Hanson

UW Health Emergency Room nurse Maria Hanson treated Wisconsin's first COVID-19 patient in January 2020.

The gravity of the pandemic hit Maria Hanson much earlier than most everyone else in Dane County.

Hanson happened to be working the night shift in UW Hospital’s emergency room on Jan. 30 when a patient walked in and asked to be tested for the coronavirus.

No one in Wisconsin at that point had been infected with COVID-19. For most people, it was something heard only in the headlines, a problem a world away in Wuhan, China.

In a negative pressure room where air flow is contained, Hanson took several swabs from the patient to send to the state lab and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Then she carried on with her normal life, getting groceries and visiting the dentist.

Five days later the results came back: The patient had tested positive for COVID-19.

The CDC showed up at her Downtown apartment in full personal protective equipment to test Hanson.

“It probably freaked out all of my neighbors, for sure,” she said.

After the CDC visit, Hanson began keeping a journal, jotting down everything she could remember about caring for Wisconsin’s first COVID-19 patient.

“I remember thinking this will be a big deal,” she said. “I remember thinking my grandkids one day will ask me about this.”

Hanson continued to keep a journal throughout the year. She marked milestones, like when the first test results came back within an hour and when she received her first vaccine dose in December.

As an ER nurse, Hanson hasn’t tended to the sickest COVID-19 patients in the ICU. But the job still comes with inherent risk. She can’t recall any shift where she went without treating someone with COVID-19.

“ER nurses are a different breed,” she said. “We’re used to taking whatever comes through the door. It’s just part of my job.”

Hanson wears an N-95 mask and face shield throughout every 12-hour shift. If a patient is suspected to have the virus, she also dons a gown and gloves. The extra protection makes it hard to breathe.

But it also gives her an opening for what to say to people who question the effectiveness of mask-wearing.

Masks work, Hanson tells them, because she interacts with COVID-19 patients every shift and she hasn’t been infected with the virus.


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