The coronavirus pandemic has taken the lives of over 6,700 individuals across the world, and sickened over 175,000. In the U.S., the number of confirmed cases continues to rise as more testing kits become available.
However, the virus is still spreading across the country, and some hospitals could soon be overwhelmed by the number of coronavirus patients.
Health care professionals are grappling with two major challenges that could be unnecessarily increasing their patient load, according to Dr. Glenn Raup, the executive director of Emergency Behavioral and Observation Services at St. Joseph Hospital in Orange, California. The first challenge is that misinformation is resulting in people thinking they are at higher risk than they actually are. The second challenge is that this belief means they are coming into emergency rooms unnecessarily.
“Many individuals believe the information that they’re hearing, that they’re at significant risk,” Raup told Yahoo Finance. “Just through casual, typical social conversations and so forth where there’s typical social distancing, no, the risk is minimal.”
As a result of that, he said, “That lack of information or believing in that information is creating some concern oftentimes by the general public that they may be at higher risk than they really are.”
The other issue health care workers are encountering is people who come into the emergency room with symptoms before calling their doctors first. Many suggest not seeking medical attention unless you have a high fever or trouble breathing, so as not to take up attention away from patients in need of more help.
“That’s important for potential patients to understand,” Raup said. “We follow those guidelines very, very strictly for what that risk level is, and that risk level does change as more information becomes available. So, I think those are the two biggest things that present a challenge for the health care providers in the front lines.”
Flattening the curve
Aside from patients being misinformed and coming into emergency rooms without severe symptoms, the third major challenge for health care professionals is the lack of available testing kits for the virus.
“We know that at the federal, state, and local levels, there’s every effort to provide us with adequate numbers of tests,” Raup said. “But, as those processes are being implemented, that does make it a challenge for us to be able to properly screen and ensure that individuals are being tested.”
In the meantime, several states and cities have taken the initiative of instituting quarantines and isolation. Governor Andrew Cuomo (D-NY) announced on Monday that New York, Connecticut, and New Jersey were taking joint regional action to close gyms, movie theaters, and casinos, reduce crowd capacity to 50, and mandate that restaurants be takeout and delivery only. Schools have also closed in New York City until at least April 20.
In California, Governor Gavin Newsom has implemented similar measures, and has called on the elderly and immunocompromised individuals to remain at home to avoid exposure to coronavirus.
Quarantines can help “flatten the curve,” which means slowing down the spread of an illness so that health care professionals and other officials have time to properly respond.
“I’m sure you’ve seen people talk about the curve,” Marcia Santini, a nurse at UCLA’s hospital in Westwood, told Yahoo Finance. “If we don’t flatten that curve, what’s going to happen is there’s going to be a majority of us that are going to get sick. And if you have a strong immune system, you’re going to fight it off. It’s not going to be a horrible ordeal.”
Although Santini could not confirm whether there are any coronavirus patients at her hospital due to HIPAA regulations, she did say that health care workers are “concerned” for several reasons.
“One, we don’t have the real estate to house these patients,” she said. “Two, staffing. If we start getting sick, if we’re not protected, if hospitals don’t provide the proper personal protective gear, we are going to get sick. And hospitals have been known to hoard these supplies because they’re afraid of running out.”
‘If we don’t each do our part, it’s going to spread like wildfire’
Although nurses are trained for crises like these, Santini said “this one is a little bit different.”
“The challenges that we’re having with this one is that it was rapid,” she told Yahoo Finance. “It’s a rapid spreading virus. It’s a new virus that the body has never seen. So, we have a little bit of a different ballgame with this one.”
Santini’s message to the public is: “Each one of us has a role in the fight and this is a battle against a pathogen that we’ve never seen. And if we don’t each do our part, it’s going to spread like wildfire.”
This includes properly washing your hands, avoiding touching your face, and most importantly, social distancing. Public health officials have stressed the importance of social distancing, which means avoiding physical social interactions as much as possible, as it can help prevent further community spread.
“We’re on the front lines and we’re going to respond in the best way we can to any and all folks who show up,” Raup said. “We just always appreciate that they follow these guidelines and really work with their health care providers. That they can make that call ahead, is the only other advice I would give. If you really are that concerned, make that call ahead to your doctor, to your urgent care, to your ER, and ask questions because it might save you a trip coming in.”