July 1, 2021 -- For New Yorkers, March 11 to May 2, 2020, was most definitely the worst time of the pandemic.

Nearly 19,000 people died of COVID-19 in New York City during those weeks, which translates to over 350 deaths per day and more than one death every 5 minutes. No one experienced the chaotic early days of the pandemic more than the city’s essential workers, including those on the front lines at Mount Sinai Hospital.

And, in The Surge at Mount Sinai, a documentary streaming on discovery+ today, you’ll be transported into the hospital’s intensive care units and meet several patients hospitalized early on, as well as the heroic Mount Sinai ICU doctors, nurses, and support staff.

To find out how his staff is doing and what he thought about the film, we interviewed David L. Reich, MD, president of Mount Sinai, one of the country’s largest and most overwhelmed health care systems, via Zoom. Read on for his thoughts on COVID-19, the documentary, and what worries him most right now.

WebMD: When did you know we were in trouble with this virus?

Reich: Late February. I’m fortunate to be connected with colleagues in Italy, and the messages of desperation started coming through during that time. It was very frightening. They explained that this isn’t just a respiratory virus and that it overwhelms hospitals and staff. They told me to try to be ready.

WebMD: The film really delves into the posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) your team is still feeling. How much are you focusing on this today?

Reich: We’re blessed to have Dr. Dennis Charney as the dean of the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. He’s an expert in resilience, and he jumped on this because these issues are foremost on our minds. We recently created the Center for Stress, Resilience, and Personal Growth to help our staff recover. This virus was like a war, and we know from PTSD related to wartime that PTSD has phases and can last a long time. The hardest things for our staff was the fear that they would be infected or bring the infection home. Then there was the fact that, with this virus, our patients were dying alone without family members present. The staff stepped in, doing FaceTime with family members who were saying goodbye. Our chaplains couldn’t be in the hospital so, if the families requested it, the staff, especially our nurses, said prayers at the moment of death. We were a surrogate for those families who couldn’t be there at the most critically emotional moment in life, which is when you lose a loved one. To step in at that moment was something that changed all of us forever.

WebMD: What worries you most now that we’re in this phase of the COVID-19 pandemic? Is the delta variant on your mind?

Reich: I’m worried because the Greek alphabet has a lot of letters. I’m not being glib, but what I’m saying is that as long as this virus is spreading as it is throughout the world largely unchecked, every single infection is a chance for the virus to mutate and to evolve into something that is more transmissible and potentially into something that’s more deadly. We have a real risk in the world, and we have to think globally now about how we help other nations that don’t have the resources that we see in Western Europe and the United States and get as many vaccinations to as many people as possible.

Otherwise, a vaccine-evading variant could emerge, and then all the hard work we’ve done with vaccinations, even if we have to come up with a booster program, it’s going to be really hard if we end up with a vaccine evader. Complacency is not an option right now.

WebMD: The film is sure to prompt some difficult memories. Is it hard for you to watch it?
Reich: I see it differently -- I feel so amazingly proud of how people responded in this crisis. The emotion of the sadness, the fear, the anxiety is mixed with one of extreme joy at the way our staff responded to the most serious crisis in their lives. They did so with innovation, spirit, and they showed such loving compassion to the people who were dying, as well as their families. Yes, theoretically in medicine, we might know we may be confronted with a situation like this, but to be confronted in real life and for people to rise as they did -- that to me is so inspiring.

For a preview of the film, check out the trailer here.