Six Months In

Inside a New York City ER: Then and Now

Lessons from the Covid-19 frontlines through the eyes of Dr. Craig Spencer

Wudan Yan
Published in
7 min readSep 15, 2020


Dr. Craig Spencer. Photo illustration; Photo: Marc Goldberg

This story is part of Six Months In, a special weeklong Elemental series reflecting on where we’ve been, what we’ve learned, and what the future holds for the Covid-19 pandemic.

Around six months ago, New York City was seeing its highest caseload of Covid-19 cases yet. Emergency rooms in the city were packed. There was a shortage of personal protective equipment for physicians, not to mention the fear of running out of ventilators for patients with cases so severe that they required supplemental oxygen. But, about half a year out, things in New York City are slowly making a change.

Craig Spencer, MD, is the director of global health in emergency medicine at New York-Presbyterian/Columbia University Medical Center. Before the coronavirus hit, he spent between three and six months each year helping with humanitarian crises around the world. But since February, he’s been grounded in New York City, working three days a week at the hospital’s emergency department; each shift about 12 hours long.

During the thick of the coronavirus spread in New York City, Spencer tweeted about how his days in the emergency room were spent tending one Covid-19 patient who needed supplemental oxygen then moving to the next nearly nonstop.

Today, as Spencer winds his way through the city streets on his way to work, listening to a podcast or some music, he’s watching the energy of the city start to come back. Whereas hardly anyone was outside during the peak of the pandemic in late March and early April, more residents are walking around, mostly masked. Restaurants and cafes have offered outdoor seating for their patrons, spilling human life into the streets and sidewalks. “People are trying to retain some sense of normalcy while continuing to remain safe,” he says.

“I think we got things under control, but…