First U.S. Emergency Physician Thought to Have Died of COVID-19 Lost Life 'Needlessly' After Re-Using Mask, Friend Says

A New Jersey doctor who treated patients with coronavirus symptoms has died after having similar symptoms and reportedly using the same face mask for a week. The doctor died of likely coronavirus complications, the American College of Emergency Physicians (ACEP) confirmed in a statement. He is the first emergency physician in the country to die with COVID-19 symptoms.

Dr. Frank Gabrin, 60, a two-time cancer survivor who worked at New Jersey's East Orange General Hospital and another hospital in Long Island, attempted to recover from his symptoms at home before he died on Tuesday, Gabrin's husband, Arnold Vargas, confirmed.

"He told me, 'I can handle this. I survived cancer and this is just the coronavirus,'" Vargas said. Gabrin was reported to have woken up with chest pains on March 24 and told Vargas "Baby, I can't breathe," according to NJ.com.

"He had a lot of coughing and two days ago he was very sick," said Vargas, who called the New York Police Department (NYPD) for assistance. It was reported to have taken 30 minutes for help to arrive, according to Vargas. "He died in my hands," he said.

While Gabrin was not tested for the COVID-19 virus, the pair believed Gabrin was infected as he had been treating patients with symptoms similar to ones he had experienced days before his death.

As the country is overwhelmed with a growing number of infected patients, hospitals are facing shortages of medical equipment including protective gear such as surgical face masks.

A friend of Gabrin, Debra Vaselech Lyons, said he "lost his life needlessly," noting the shortage of protective gear where he worked.

"When he got sick he told me, 'I know exactly when I got sick. It's when I had to reuse my mask,'" Lyons told The New York Post, confirming that Gabrin had also worked at St. John's Hospital in the New York City borough of Queens.

"He had one medical kit—including the face mask—for a whole week," she said.

"He had one pair of gloves. They ran out of the large and extra-large gloves and Frank had to try to wear a size medium. Every time he put them on they ripped. They ran out of soap," she added.

"He lost his life needlessly because if he'd had the equipment—he's a professional, he knew how to protect himself," Lyons told CNN's Cuomo Prime Time program.

A doctor from SOMOS Community Care prepares to test a patient at a drive-thru testing center for coronavirus at Lehman College on March 28, 2020 in the Bronx, New York City.
A doctor from SOMOS Community Care prepares to test a patient at a drive-thru testing center for coronavirus at Lehman College on March 28, 2020 in the Bronx, New York City. Getty Images

Gabrin had been planning to return to work after recovering from his symptoms at home, Lyons said in a post on her Twitter account.

"I lost my best friend to Covid19 a few hours ago. ⁦@DrFrankGabrin⁩ was an ER Doctor in NYC. He planned to go back to work when he recovered. It took only five days from the first sign of symptoms. He leaves a husband of less than one year behind. We are devastated. #PPENow" Lyons wrote in a post on March 31.

The East Orange General Hospital said in a statement, "We are committed to ensuring the safety of our patients, staff and physicians. We currently have sufficient staffing, supplies and equipment—including N95 respirators and face masks—on hand to care for patients."

"Our thoughts and prayers are with Dr. Gabrin's family and friends, and also with all our frontline caregivers who are dedicated to serving our community during this unprecedented COVID-19 outbreak," it added.

William Jaquis, the president of the ACEP, said in a statement, "Emergency physicians understand that sometimes in our efforts to save your life, we may end up sacrificing our own. This is not a decision made lightly or a post abandoned in times of need. We know the risks of the job we signed up for, but we are on the frontlines in this historic war against COVID-19 with insufficient protection."

He added the ACEP was "deeply saddened to learn that a former ACEP member and our current colleague on the frontlines—an emergency physician—has lost his fight against this virus."

The COVID-19 virus, which was first reported in Wuhan, China, has infected more than a million people across 181 countries and regions. Over 245,500 cases have been confirmed in the U.S., the current epicenter of the outbreak, according to the latest figures from Johns Hopkins University.

More than 218,000 people have recovered from infection, while over 54,000 have died across the globe. New Jersey has at least 537 deaths reported among the state's 25,590 infected patients, according to the latest figures reported Thursday on the New Jersey state government website.

The graphic below, provided by Statista, illustrates the spread of COVID-19 across the U.S.

This infographic shows the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases by state.
This infographic shows the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases by state.

Data on COVID-19 cases is from Johns Hopkins University unless otherwise stated.

World Health Organization advice for avoiding spread of coronavirus disease (COVID-19)

Hygiene advice

  • Clean hands frequently with soap and water, or alcohol-based hand rub.
  • Wash hands after coughing or sneezing; when caring for the sick; before, during and after food preparation; before eating; after using the toilet; when hands are visibly dirty; and after handling animals or waste.
  • Maintain at least 1 meter (3 feet) distance from anyone who is coughing or sneezing.
  • Avoid touching your hands, nose and mouth. Do not spit in public.
  • Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue or bent elbow when coughing or sneezing. Discard the tissue immediately and clean your hands.

Medical advice

  • Avoid close contact with others if you have any symptoms.
  • Stay at home if you feel unwell, even with mild symptoms such as headache and runny nose, to avoid potential spread of the disease to medical facilities and other people.
  • If you develop serious symptoms (fever, cough, difficulty breathing) seek medical care early and contact local health authorities in advance.
  • Note any recent contact with others and travel details to provide to authorities who can trace and prevent spread of the disease.
  • Stay up to date on COVID-19 developments issued by health authorities and follow their guidance.

Mask and glove usage

  • Healthy individuals only need to wear a mask if taking care of a sick person.
  • Wear a mask if you are coughing or sneezing.
  • Masks are effective when used in combination with frequent hand cleaning.
  • Do not touch the mask while wearing it. Clean hands if you touch the mask.
  • Learn how to properly put on, remove and dispose of masks. Clean hands after disposing of the mask.
  • Do not reuse single-use masks.
  • Regularly washing bare hands is more effective against catching COVID-19 than wearing rubber gloves.
  • The COVID-19 virus can still be picked up on rubber gloves and transmitted by touching your face.