NORWAY — Tony Simpson of Waterford is likely one of the first Mainers introduced to the coronavirus firsthand.

In February 2020 as the first cases of COVID-19 were being detected in the United States he was deployed to Oakland, California, with a New England-based disaster medical assistance team to set up one of the country’s first large-scale quarantine facilities. After that it was to a hospital in Corpus Christi, Texas, in an overwhelmed intensive care unit. He spent Thanksgiving doing similar work at a Cheyenne, Wyoming, hospital.

Tony Simpson of Waterford, a certified physician assistant, has spent the past 18 months working on a national disaster medical response team dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic. He has been deployed to California, Texas and Wyoming. Supplied photo

Eighteen months ago, Simpson and others were providing aid to a public that did not know much about pandemics and knew no way to avoid it until it was too late.

“I’ve been on four COVID deployments. Oakland, Corpus Christi, Cheyenne,” Simpson said recently at his Norway office. “And then to come full circle last March we shipped to Oakland again. This last time we were there to help manage a mass vaccination center.

“We went from identifying the disease and doing quarantine to treating people in intense situations throughout the year, then full circle to a vaccination center,” he said.

Simpson is a certified physician’s assistant at MaineOrtho, a division of Spectrum Healthcare, in Norway. For the past 12 years he has also worked for the disaster medical assistance team, part of the U.S. Health and Human Services National Disaster Medical System. He is a member of a three-state team that trains together and responds to natural and public health disasters around the country, or be on standby for national events such as inaugurations and Independence Day celebrations in Washington, D.C.

All told, six weeks of public service deployment took up three months of Simpson’s life last year.

Speaking of his second deployment to Corpus Christi, he said, “We went in there and it was almost like a war zone,” he  said. We were dealing with the sickest of the sick. There was a lot of death there.”

Cheyenne, while not as populated as Corpus Christi, was no easier.

“In Wyoming the hospital had COVID dedicated floors,” he said. “Someone would seem to be doing great or holding their own, then they would crash right in front of you. You’d think, ‘they’re OK, they’re responding to treatment,’ and they’d just crash and not make it. We saw that a lot.”

The pressures of working nonstop to save patients is a difficult thing to process, he said, and the national disaster medical team does a very good job of looking after the mental health of its members. But he acknowledges that working in two hospitals ravaged by COVID-19 took a toll on him.

“When we returned from Corpus Christi, I had been on such intensity for so long, my brain couldn’t shut off for a couple weeks,” he said. “Your body puts out so much adrenaline, a natural steroid that keeps you going full. We’d eat, get to the hospital, work 14 hours, go straight back to the room, shower, sleep and repeat.”

When he returned home, he said, “things made me angry. I’d get frustrated when I saw people going around with no masks and not taking care of each other. I’d seen what the results could be.”

There may be more COVID-related deployments for Simpson ahead, and his time with the team will not come to an end anytime soon, with or without the pandemic.

“It’s a form of community service,” he said. “A way we can do things to help.”

“We do our job to the best that we can,” he said, “We treat everyone with respect and compassion. You see the best and the worst. It changes the way you practice. I have greater awareness of what goes on here, having been there.”


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