Hospitals prepare for worst-case in coronavirus outbreak

Hospitals are preparing for a likely surge in their emergency and critical wards if the coronavirus outbreak isn’t contained by social distancing and screening efforts the U.S. rolled out this week.

As the numbers of infected top 200,000 worldwide and New York — the U.S. largest hot zone, where reported cases more than doubled overnight — it’s not just a shortage of critical use beds and shortage of necessary supplies like masks and gear that are a concern. Hospitals also have to worry about staffing.

To combat the expected surge of sick patients, ideas have ranged from field hospitals (mobile army surgical hospitals, MASH), which requires the Army Corps of Engineers to be mobilized, to having the construction companies donate N95 masks to hospitals.

On Wednesday, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said the U.S. Navy would send a floating hospital with 1000 beds to New York City, where new cases are surging. Meanwhile, the Pentagon announced it will send five million respirators and 2,000 ventilators to the Health and Human Services Department, adding to the national stockpile.

But there are other strategies to ramp up. Hospitals are turning to staffing services, like Nomad Health, to help fill the needs.

CEO Alexi Nazem told Yahoo Finance that temporary or traveling health workers have seen an upswing in demand in the past week. Also, more medical professionals are looking for ways to help on the front lines in New York, Washington, Florida and Illinois, all key areas where the outbreak is wreaking havoc.

Though some are restricted due to state laws requiring licensing — an obstacle that Nazem would like to see addressed— there is a level of urgency from hospitals.

“We’re seeing insane requests. Hospitals are doubling what they are willing to offer. Everyone is desperate,” he said.

In addition, for clinical staff already in some hospitals who may have been at the end of their assigned time, there is a surge of requests for continuing the assignments. Specifically, intensive care and emergency room units are in especially high demand, Nazem added.

Coronavirus cases topped 200,000 mark on Wednesday. Over 100 countries are battling the virus.

Elective surgeries pose a quandary

As some hospitals look to delay or cancel elective surgeries to free up hospital beds, the demands for surgical staff has thus far remained unchanged. Nazem told Yahoo Finance that’s likely to stay the same, as some of those workers can be repurposed to help with the overall response.

Those extra bodies are likely to come in handy. Tom Frieden, a former Centers for Disease Control director, warned that the ICU could become an overwhelming situation — and may add to the frustrations seen in testing. and could be even more frustrating than the difficulty of testing has been.

“What’s most important right now is helping health care surge safely,” Frieden, who oversaw the government’s response to the 2009 H1N1 pandemic, told Yahoo Finance.

That includes more testing, faster turnaround times, creating tents where people can be tested outside the hospital and taking ICU beds which are available to where patients need them, Frieden said.

However, he also suggested that drive-through locations at pharmacies and retail giants — which cranked into high gear just days ago in certain hot spots — are not ideal, since the format may make it harder to track results.

Back in 2009, the CDC was able to successfully produce a new test in less than two weeks. Three days later, it sent out more than 1 million to the U.S. and 43 other countries.

The CDC’s inability to respond to the current outbreak has been well documented, but Frieden stated that private companies also have a big role to play in the current crisis.

“This requires the private sector to function for the scale needed,” Frieden said.

Anjalee Khemlani is a reporter at Yahoo Finance. Follow her on Twitter: @AnjKhem

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