Confirmed diagnoses of novel coronavirus infections are now doubling on average every three days. So far, the U.S. pattern has fit precisely with epidemiologists’ projections of its exponential growth. That means the roughly 7,000 cases confirmed on Wednesday will likely be 14,000 cases by this weekend and 28,000 by next week. Then 50,000 in another few days, then 100,000 and so on. As testing catches up, the magnitude of the spread will come into even sharper focus.
Aside from the recent headline-grabbing stock market meltdown and economic disruption, the biggest fears expressed by state governors is that the federal government has been too slow to address the demands that soon could overwhelm the health care system. It’s time for a national mobilization of wartime proportions to get ready for the extreme pressures confronting the medical community.
The numbers suggest a shocking lack of preparedness: There could be as few as 200,000 oxygen ventilators in hospitals nationwide to meet an expected demand of more than 900,000. During a conference call with governors Monday, President Donald Trump appeared at a loss about how to respond, telling them, “Respirators, ventilators, all of the equipment — try getting it yourselves. We will be backing you, but try getting it yourselves.”
Total available hospital intensive-care unit beds numbered less than 100,000 as of 2018, according to an assessment by Healthaffairs.org. Forecasts of the population expected to require intensive-care treatment could exceed 4 million. The coordination now occurring between the Trump administration and New York state — including deploying the USNS Comfort hospital ship — exemplify the kind of decisive action required. But there are 49 other states in need of additional federal attention.
Trump now seems to grasp how serious this pandemic could get, adopting a much more somber tone than before.
Nobody could have seen this coming, but once he became aware of the pandemic, Trump wasted valuable time trying to blame the Obama administration — wrongly — for the current lack of preparedness. A closer look at the 2019 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention budget suggests the Trump administration didn’t take preparedness seriously. The CDC’s Public Health Preparedness and Response budget went from $1.4 billion in fiscal year 2017 to $800 million under Trump’s budget recommendation. He tried to eliminate funding for the Academic Centers for Public Health Preparedness. He also tried to zero-out all funding for the Strategic National Stockpile, which manages and delivers life-saving medical countermeasures during a public health emergency.
Preparedness is what could separate this country from the disastrous triage situation in Italy, where doctors are deciding who dies and who lives because inadequate resources are available to treat them all. Despite Trump’s ongoing self-congratulating tweets, his abysmal learning curve could now be a life-or-death question for thousands of Americans.
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