When the new coronavirus COVID-19 first broke out, China’s healthcare system was unprepared. Hospital waiting rooms were so packed with prospective patients that hundreds more had no choice but to line up outside. Many waited several hours, only to be turned away and urged to self-quarantine. More troubling, experts say, is that the chaos of this initial surge likely did more to spread the disease than stop it.
The same fate awaits us here if the new virus becomes a global pandemic.
Hospitals in the United States are already so overburdened, and their staffs so overworked, that one bad flu season is enough to push them over capacity. Just two years ago, during a particularly bad season in California, patients seeking treatment for the flu instead found themselves in “war zones.” Hospitals turned away ambulances, imported nurses from elsewhere and erected parking lot tents when they ran out of beds. Surgeries had to be canceled and hospitals ran out of supplies.
If the new coronavirus gains momentum here, infecting thousands, the outlook would be even grimmer. To be sure, we are better prepared than we were for the last coronavirus outbreak in 2009. Our hospitals now have pandemic plans to ensure that enough equipment, protective gear and administrative controls are available to deal with a surge of new patients.
But, on their own, these measures are not enough.