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U.S. Hospitals Unprepared For A Quickly Spreading Coronavirus


U.S. officials say they're making about a thousand beds available at four military bases for people who will be under mandatory quarantine when they arrive from China's Hubei province. A new strain of coronavirus has spread to more than 10,000 people and claimed more than 300 lives in China.

Federal officials say these steps are intended to keep the spread of the virus to a minimum, but containing a virus can be difficult once it's started spreading. So even though there've been just eight cases confirmed in the U.S., would hospitals be prepared for a much larger outbreak? NPR health correspondent Patti Neighmond reports.

PATTI NEIGHMOND, BYLINE: Dr. Dawn Nolt is an infectious disease specialist at Oregon Health and Science University. She says her hospital follows CDC guidance, screening patients for symptoms of the virus such as fever and cough.

DAWN NOLT: If they have been to China, we would escort them into a private room to remove them from other patients and visitors who would be in the vicinity.

NEIGHMOND: And if it's determined patients are infected or suspected of being infected, they'll be placed in what's called airborne isolation.

NOLT: There is a pressure differential so that the room itself is negative, and therefore, all the germs would stay within the room and not be pushed out to the hallway.

MCCAMMON: Nolt's hospital conducted drills to prepare for patients who have to be isolated. So have many hospitals nationwide. But if there is a sudden surge of thousands of infections, could hospitals handle it? Dr. Tara O'Toole says no. She's with In-Q-Tel, a nonprofit strategic investment firm that supports U.S. national security.

TARA O'TOOLE: No one is ready for a worst-case scenario - for a really bad, lethal, fast-moving pandemic.

NEIGHMOND: O'Toole says hospitals will have a very hard time handling a lot of critically ill patients who need to be in isolation.

O'TOOLE: That's why we want to make sure to the greatest extent possible that the people we're putting in hospitals and keeping isolated are really the ones who need that kind of care. The danger is we will put people who are sick with other illnesses like flu in isolation and hospital care when they don't need to be there.

NEIGHMOND: As it is now, testing for coronavirus must be done at the CDC in Atlanta. A diagnostic test that could be done in local doctors' offices or even at home would make a big difference in managing the epidemic. The good news, O'Toole says - we already have the capacity to develop such a rapid diagnostic test.

O'TOOLE: We're in a bio-revolution. There are things happening as a consequence of a greater understanding of biology converging with the digital revolution that could make a big difference in the way we manage epidemics.

NEIGHMOND: The tests could be developed in just a few months. But she says that requires a federal commitment and a greater investment in public health.

O'TOOLE: We need to build that capacity because we live in an age of epidemics. These epidemics are going to keep coming. We know that.

NEIGHMOND: John Auerbach, president of Trust for America's Health, agrees

JOHN AUERBACH: Infectious disease outbreaks can accelerate quickly, and you don't want to wait until you see what that is like and then say, well, now let's begin a sort of slow and deliberate planning process. You really want to get ahead of it.

NEIGHMOND: But the public health system has been frayed over the past decade, he says, due to coping with disasters like wildfires in California, flooding in the Midwest and South, the measles outbreak before that and the continuing tragedy of opioid addiction and death.

AUERBACH: Public Health in America is generally underfunded and has been cut in terms of its funding over the last decade. When we look at a state and local jobs, there are about 50,000 fewer jobs in public health across the country now than before the recession in 2008.

NEIGHMOND: And in an extreme situation of hospital overcrowding, people might get asked to isolate themselves at home, which also costs money.

AUERBACH: You have to feed them, and you have to consider whether they have other medical needs. Do they need oxygen? Do they need prescriptions filled? Who's doing that?

NEIGHMOND: Still, the country is in better shape than it might otherwise be - a result of Sept. 11 and the anthrax attacks soon afterwards. That and concerns over a flu pandemic a decade ago led to governments stockpiles of necessary medical equipment like ventilators, medication and other supplies.

Patti Neighmond, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SURFACE TO AIR'S "BLOOD SIMPLE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Award-winning journalist Patti Neighmond is NPR's health policy correspondent. Her reports air regularly on NPR newsmagazines All Things Considered, Morning Edition, and Weekend Edition.