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Coronavirus: Former U.S. Surgeon General: Vivek Murthy

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We're going to begin today again with the latest on the coronavirus outbreak and efforts to contain its spread here in the U.S. Today, thousands of Americans who are returning to the U.S. on flights from overseas are having to wait hours in crowded lines at airports while officials screen them for symptoms of the virus. We'll have the latest on that in just a few minutes.

Later in the program, we'll also hear from someone who was diagnosed with COVID-19 and has now recovered. She'll tell us what it was like and also what she had to go through to get tested. And we'll talk with the director of a health ministry initiative on how he's advising religious congregations to adapt their practices to the crisis. All of that is coming up this hour.

But first, the former surgeon general of the United States, Dr. Vivek Murthy. He served under President Obama and briefly in the Trump administration. During his time in office, Murthy dealt with the spread of Ebola and the Zika virus among other public health challenges. This week, he's been visiting hospitals to observe how they're dealing with the rise in the number of people seeking care during the current crisis. And he said he's found a big gulf between what people need and what health care workers are able to provide.

Dr. Murthy, welcome. Thank you so much for joining us.

VIVEK MURTHY: Thank you, Michel. It's good to be with you today.

MARTIN: Yeah, likewise. You tweeted this week about your visit to one of the nation's most well-regarded academic hospitals. Now, you didn't give the name, but you said it was located in a state where COVID-19 cases are increasing quickly, and you found out that the first challenge at this health care facility was testing. So what did you learn about the testing protocol?

MURTHY: Well, I've been having conversations with physicians from hospitals across the country. And what I found at this particular hospital was sadly representative of what I found everywhere, which is that health care providers are seeing people who have symptoms that are consistent with the novel coronavirus, COVID-19, but they're unable to get them tested. And this is presenting several really important problems for them.

No. 1, if they can't get them tested early enough, then - and they're concerned they have COVID-19, then they often have to quarantine or advise quarantine for the people with whom that person is in contact, sometimes including the doctor himself or herself. But second, because we can't get accurate and sufficient testing, we're not able to get a accurate picture of how COVID-19 is unfolding across our communities, which makes it difficult to direct our resources and our time and energy.

So on top of all of this, the lack of testing is really creating a lot of anxiety and worry for doctors, nurses, for staff in the hospitals who are worried that they also are not only unable to treat patients with the full care that they need, but they're also themselves at risk at a time when they are running out of masks, gowns, gloves and other equipment that they need to protect themselves.

MARTIN: So I want to address both of those things that you mentioned, just taking those separately. So what about a patient who does manage to get one of these tests? What happens next?

MURTHY: Well, if a patient does manage to get the test - and during the time that you're waiting for the test result, that patient should be under quarantine. And that can be a voluntary quarantine. It could be something that they do on their own. But the point is that we should be assuming that that person could be positive and protecting other people from exposure.

Part of the challenge that these hospitals are encountering is that the amount of time it's taking for the test to come back is also quite long. In other countries around the world, they've been able to turn these tests around in hours. Clinicians here in the United States are having to wait days - three, four, sometimes five days, sometimes even longer - to get their test results back.

And during that time, people have to remain in quarantine. And if those people include health care workers, that means that our workforce is diminished exactly at the time where we need more clinicians.

MARTIN: I was going to ask you about that. I mean, you did raise this question - that you said that the doctors and nurses, medical professionals themselves, are starting to be concerned about this. So is it accurate to say that they - you don't think they're getting what they need right now? Or do they have what they need right now to protect themselves?

Because you can see where this could become, like, a knock-on disaster if the medical professionals now are becoming ill or have to be isolated or can't function because of the crisis. That really becomes a disaster. So do they have what they need?

MURTHY: In many cases, no, they do not have what they need. And this is a great concern. There are three key areas where our health care system is vulnerable in crises like this. No. 1, we can run out of beds. No. 2, we can run out of equipment. No. 3, we can run out of people - specifically, health care workers, who we need to take care of patients.

And we're already seeing this play out in other countries, particularly in Italy, where the hospital system has been utterly overwhelmed, and clinicians are having to make the kind of decisions that you see in war, where they're - they have two patients who desperately need care, but there's only a bed for one of them. And they're having to make decisions that no clinician ever wants to make about which one has a better chance of surviving, even if they know that both deserve treatment.

We don't want to be in that situation. But what we are seeing is a rapid rise in cases. And while we have some ability to expand our capacity in terms of ICU beds and ventilators here in the United States, we will far outstrip that limited extra capacity if we continue on the same trajectory of rise that we see now.

MARTIN: So...

MURTHY: We'll certainly outstrip it if we continue on the path that Italy has gone down.

MARTIN: So we have only about a minute and 20 left. I need you to talk about what steps that you recommend because I'm assuming you have some.

MURTHY: Yes. So one of the first things that we have to do is to make sure that we get rid of these roadblocks with testing. Clinicians need to be able to test the patients who need it. That test needs to be turned around in a reasonable amount of time. Other countries have done it. We can do it, too.

Second, we need to make sure that clinicians have the masks, the gowns and the equipment that they need to protect themselves. And third, we have to be able to stand up capacity in our country. We need to engage the military on this, use military bases if need be. But we need to be able to expand capacity.

But at the end of the day, this is an all-in moment for America and for the world. And every now and then, these moments come about in the world's history, where we have to come together to overcome a challenge that's bigger than any one of us can take on alone. And this is one of those moments. This is a serious pandemic.

But it - but we do know how to address it. And if we take those measures - if each of us step up, if we do the social distancing measures and physical distancing we know we need to do, if our government steps up to support hospital systems, health departments, get resources to the front lines - then I believe...

MARTIN: OK.

MURTHY: ...That we can blunt this epidemic.

MARTIN: That is Dr. Vivek Murthy. He is the former surgeon general of the United States, and we reached him via Skype.

Dr. Murthy, thanks so much for talking to us. I hope we'll talk again, and I hope it'll be under happier circumstances.

MURTHY: I hope so too, Michel.

MARTIN: All right. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.