HOUSTON (CBSDFW.COM/CNN) – The picture captured just a fraction of the heartache experienced by medical staff and patients during the COVID-19 pandemic, now a Texas doctor is talking about the isolation of his elderly patients and asking, in fact pleading, with people to “do the basic things” to avoid infection and stay out of hospital.

Dr. Joseph Varon was captured on film cradling a distraught COVID-19 patient on Thanksgiving. The elderly gray-haired patient buried his head in the arms and chest of the doctor, who was covered from head-to-toe in PPE.

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Hospitalizations from COVID-19 reached another record high across the U.S. Monday, with officials across several states expressing concern that health care facilities would be overwhelmed.

By November 30 Dr. Varon, chief of staff at United Memorial Medical Center in Houston, said he had worked for 256 days nonstop in the pandemic so far and was frustrated by the increasing numbers of people being hospitalized.

Varon described the desperation of COVID-19 patients on his wards, who he said were battling isolation as well as the virus. The man he had been consoling in the photo just wanted his family, the doctor said.

“As I’m going inside my COVID unit I see that this elderly patient is out of his bed and trying to get out of the room and he’s crying. So, I get close to him and I tell him ‘why are you crying’ and the man says, ‘I want to be with my wife’,” Varon said. “So, I just grab him, I hold him, I did not know that I was being photographed at that time.”

Dr. Joseph Varon hugs and comforts a patient in the COVID-19 ICU during Thanksgiving at the United Memorial Medical Center in Houston, Texas. (credit: Go Nakamura/Getty Images)

Varon said eventually the man felt better and stopped crying. But he said the patient would not be able to see his wife until he tested negative on his swabs and could be discharged.

‘You Feel Isolated’

“It’s very difficult. You can imagine. You are inside a room where people come in in ‘spacesuits’ and you have no communication with anybody else, only by phone if you’re lucky. I mean it’s very difficult and when you are an elderly individual it’s even more difficult because you feel that you are alone. You feel isolated.”

Varon said as he held the man, he recollected all the other patients that he’d had to similarly console.

“I will go into their rooms; I will sit on their bed and chat with them because they truly need somebody to give them a hand. And my staff is very good at doing this, but we have so many patients that sometimes we cannot hold every patient or grab the hand of a patient or at least try to be a little more human,” the doctor said. “Some of them cry, some of them try to escape — we actually had somebody that tried to escape through a window the other day.”

The man in the photo may be able to see his wife soon, Varon said. His condition had improved, and staff hoped that he might be discharged by the end of the week.

The doctor’s battle, however, continues.

“I don’t know what keeps me going, I don’t know how I haven’t broken down,” he said. “My nurses have broken down. My nurses cry in the middle of the day because they get so sad, sometimes for situations like this. Just seeing a patient that’s crying because he wants to see his family.”

‘Keep Your Social Distance; Wear Your Mask; Wash Your Hands’

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Varon said he was frustrated by people not doing the right thing as coronavirus patients continue to fill his hospital beds.

“I do this day in and day out and people are out there doing the wrong thing. People are out there in bars, restaurants, malls — it is crazy — it’s like we work, work, work, work, work and people don’t listen and then they end up in my ICU,” he said.

“What people need to know is that — I don’t want to have to be hugging them. They need to do the basic things: keep your social distance; wear your mask; wash your hands and avoid going to places where there are a lot of people. Very simple. If people can do that health care workers like me will be able to — hopefully rest.”

Varon said he was trying to be transparent to the media so that the public could see the reality of the situation in his hospital and had given Getty photographer Go Nakamura access to his COVID-19 ward, which is how the image of him had been captured.

Worsening Crisis

Nakamura posted the photo on his Facebook account with the caption: “Nov. 26. Dr. Joseph Varon comforts a patient with coronavirus disease. I am grateful to witness a wonderful moment and I thank all the medical staffs for their hard work even during the holiday season. Photographed for @gettyimages #covidera #photojournalism”

Other photos from the hospital posted on Nakamura’s feed show masked medical workers treating patients or resting, seemingly exhausted.

Varon also spoke on November 25, warning that the crisis was worsening.

“For the last few days, we’ve had a steady increase in the number of cases. There’s no question that patients are coming into the hospital — they are coming in sicker. And they are coming in sicker because they are waiting longer to come to the hospital. They are tired of corona; they have what I call the ‘Corona Fatigue Syndrome.’ Everybody’s tired of Corona, so they wait, they wait longer,” he said then.

“Unfortunately, my concerns for the next six to 12 weeks is that if we don’t do things right, America is going to see the darkest day in modern American medical history.”

Varon said his hospital had opened two new wings to prepare for an expected influx of patients after Thanksgiving as the pandemic’s relentless cycle continued.

“This is taking a huge toll. Not only on me but on my health care people that work with me. My nurses, in the middle of the day they will start crying because you know they are getting so many patients and it’s a never-ending story. When they finish finally getting a patient in, they get a phone call from the ER that there is another patient that is being admitted,” he said.

Some 96,039 COVID-19 patients were hospitalized across the US as of Monday evening, according to the COVID Tracking Project and the virus’s toll continues to climb. Johns Hopkins University reported 157,901 new cases and 1,172 deaths Monday, taking the US totals to more than 13,500,000 cases and at least 268,045 lives lost from COVID-19.

(© Copyright 2020 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. The CNN Wire™ & © 2020 Cable News Network, Inc., a Time Warner Company contributed to this report.)

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