MIAMI (CBSMiami) – Martha Baker first met Araceli Buendia Ilagan back in the 80s when they both started working as nurses at Jackson Memorial Hospital.

“We all knew Celi,” said Baker, who is the head of the health care workers union at Jackson.

Originally from the Philippines, Ilagan was part of a great tradition of Filipino nurses at Jackson, Baker noted, many of whom support their families both here in the United States and back in the Philippines.

Thirty-three years after starting at Jackson, Ilagan became the first health care worker at the hospital to die from the coronavirus. She last worked at the hospital on Tuesday and was dead by Friday, a sign of just how rapid the disease hits some people.

“Not only was she a good friend of mine, and a good friend of many, she’s our first, she’s our first to fall,” Baker told CBS4’s Jim DeFede, her voice breaking with emotion. “It’s hard.”

“I think everybody recognizes, sadly, that she’s the first but she may not be the last.”

Ilagan’s dedication to her patients may have cost her in the end.

“She was one of those hands-on assistant nurse managers who would not let you work by yourself,” Baker said “She was probably in and out of every single room in that 20-bed ICU every day despite the risk of COVID.”

The reality is that nurses and other workers have no idea who is positive for COVID-19.

“These patients coming in we are not able to test everyone,” Baker said. “We are not able to test each other as co-workers.”

“Everybody has heard about the Jackson North nurse that was COVID,” Baker continued. “She was at work and didn’t know she was positive. She went home sick and was six days with her family and didn’t know she was positive. You don’t find these things out and then in retrospect you find out how many people you touched – literally touched.”

Baker has been speaking to nurses throughout the system every day.

“When they call, they don’t want to talk about themselves,” she said. “They talk about needing equipment to do their jobs safely.”

Are they scared?

“I’m sure they have to be scared, they are human beings, but that doesn’t bubble to the top of our conversation,” she said. “If I were to ask them, `How scared are you?’ That would be a whole other conversation. They are health care professionals, just like the first responders. When 9/11 was happening, we didn’t ask the firefighters, `Are you scared?’ We talked about what a heroic job they were doing and how are they dealing with the stress and how do we keep them safe.”

She says many employees self-quarantining at home away from their families, often segregating themselves from loved ones for fear of what they may bring home.

She said Jackson officials have repeatedly told her they have enough PPE – Personal Protection Equipment – but the employees complain they are not seeing it.

“They are feeling that it is not there,” she said.

Baker said it may be a problem of it not being properly distributed within the hospital.

More than anything, baker said, workers are focused on trying to end the spread of the virus.

While the hospital has resources and bed-space today, she estimates that will change very soon, as the wave of cases expected to crash into the hospital in two to four weeks.

The overriding question: “How do we keep this manageable?”

A few hours after Baker made her comments it was announced that the CEO of Jackson, Carlos Migoya, has tested positive for COVID-19.

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Jim DeFede

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