It may be a beautiful day on the cusp of spring, but with social distancing not yet a social norm, healthcare workers are bracing for a brutal winter.
Does that sound over the top? It's not every flu season that Seattle turns a soccer field into a 200-bed hospital with the intent to set up more.
With their eyes on Seattle and other hard-hit regions, local healthcare providers have concerns about our own community’s preparedness for what’s coming. They are pleading with the public to embrace the urgent need to flatten the curve.
“We are doing the best we can with the limited resources we have, but the most important factor in our success is out of our hands. It’s up to everyone in our community to make the effort to reduce transmission and flatten the curve,” said one physician.
A repeatedly expressed concern by health care workers is the lack of sufficient personal protective equipment (PPE) for hospital staff. Tumbleweird spoke to several healthcare workers at local hospitals on the condition of anonymity. The names of their employers have also been removed.
“There is a significant shortage. [Our hospital] has capacity for 32 ICU patients. At full capacity, we would run out of our current PPE equipment (gowns, N95 masks) within 3-7 days,” said one physician.
That’s not a lack of preparedness on the part of the hospital, says another healthcare worker:
“We never had the resources at [my current employer] or any other hospital I’ve worked at to accommodate this type of pandemic. We barely have the resources to get by in a normal flu season,” they said.
Covid-19 is no flu. The two infectious respiratory viral infections can’t be compared.
Elizabeth Battaglia is one of the leaders of Flatten the Curve Tri-Cities, but this isn’t her first infectious disease outbreak.
Battaglia supported the Ebola and Zika response at the CDC and is a FEMA Public Information Officer. She has also recently begun to serve as a volunteer consultant helping the Benton Franklin Health District contextualize their message to the community regarding Covid-19.
She understands how some could have a lack of urgency.
“Right now, we have two positive cases and one confirmed death,” Battaglia said. “So there is an ocean behind us, and the first few waves have crashed. Those waves are maybe two or three feet high.”
But Battaglia says it’s the wave coming up behind us we need to focus on, rather than the ripples at our ankles.
“There is a tidal wave in the middle of the ocean picking up speed. We have not seen anything yet. This will get a lot more difficult before it gets better,” she said.
With Tri-City hospitals soon to be at the receiving end of that wave, healthcare workers describe the mood as tense.
One physician said that not only is the capacity limited, the resources to handle the incoming wave are already critically low.
The limit of ventilators and masks has been widely documented as a national problem, and our local hospitals are in a similar position.
“We are being told by the hospital that we don’t have enough PPE to follow industry-wide safety recommendations,” the physician said.
“Because of the high likelihood of asymptomatic carriers of the virus, many providers would like to wear N95 masks for every routine intubation, as a precaution,” the physician said. “However, there are not enough N95 masks available to do so without depleting our supply. The masks will be reserved for patients with confirmed diagnosis or with high suspicion of the diagnosis.“
“Some physicians have already purchased their own N95 masks, and they will be permitted to use their own if they have them,” the physician said.
One of the health care workers mentioned that there are efforts to use N95 masks designed for construction and to change regulations in order to allow their use.
“They are doing the best with what they have,” said another healthcare provider. “It’s just annoying for me to see people at the grocery store with N95 masks when nurses across the country don’t have them available to use like they are meant to be used.”
What can the community do to support our healthcare providers?
“People need to stay home and not get other people infected and then they wouldn’t need the masks they are taking from the healthcare workers. And if they’re sick, unless they are in respiratory distress, they need to stay home and do all the stuff they would normally do if they had the flu.”
“We desperately need widespread testing, as soon as possible,” said one physician, echoing the sentiments expressed by multiple healthcare providers we talked to.
“Staying home and limiting the spread of infection will give our local hospitals a fighting chance to care for those who are infected,” said another healthcare provider. “As well as those who need urgent health care for other reasons.”
With local hospitals already suspending elective surgeries, our regularly busy hospitals could be so overloaded by Covid-19 patients that it could make it difficult for the hospital to play its regular role in the community’s health. Health care providers reiterated that in the likely event of an unwieldy Covid-19 wave, the casualties could be more than those ill with the virus.
“Every day, we have people who need high level urgent care for issues related to heart disease, cancer, injuries...” one doctor said. “We are not equipped to handle a large surge of acutely ill patients without sacrificing the care of others.”
Healthcare providers are seriously urging the community to follow the recommendationtake seriously the call by by government officials to stay home, keep social distance, be mindful of hygiene, and self-isolate if sick.
“[Flattening the curve] is the most important thing that can be done to help healthcare providers and to help people who are ill and will need adequate medical care from a system that is not too overwhelmed to provide it,” said one physician.
Battaglia’s harsh dose of realism about the incoming tidal wave is accompanied by optimism for the future beyond it.
“Life will never be the same—and that is a good thing,” she said. “We need better personal hygiene, people need vaccines, and we need to come together as communities to help each other. We are all in this together and we will get through this together.”