Another week on the exponential curve

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As efforts to increase testing for COVID-19 ramped up this week, the number of cases in the US rose exponentially, and the number of deaths increased sharply as well. Early but incomplete data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) indicated that the virus was impacting younger people in greater numbers than had been seen in China and Italy, and concerns grew that asymptomatic but infected people could be spreading the virus to those with compromised health status. In response, many cities and states moved aggressively to put in place stricter measures to keep people in their homes to mitigate spread.

Several flashpoints have emerged across the healthcare system. Supplies of personal protective equipment (PPE) are in short supply, raising concerns about putting healthcare workers at risk. Testing supplies—particularly collection swabs—are also running low in many places, forcing some newly-launched testing locations to close after just a few days. Hospitals across the country began to gear up for a wave of patients, with the number of potential cases likely to far exceed existing capacity of hospital beds, intensive care beds, and, in particular, ventilators.

In response, the President invoked the Defense Production Act, which will allow the government to direct private sector production of critically needed equipment. Hospital leaders have been advised by the government to cancel elective surgeries and minimize non-emergency utilization of healthcare resources, to preserve supplies and capacity for the coming wave of cases.

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) loosened several key regulations to allow more care to be delivered virtually, in an attempt to relieve pressure on the system (more on that below). By week’s end, hospitals in several areas—including Seattle, San Francisco, New York, and New Orleans—were reporting that they were perilously close to being overwhelmed.

As many have pointed out, we are faced with a decision of which curve we want to be on: one that looks like Italy, which responded late with mitigation and suppression efforts and has found their healthcare system collapsing under the volume of hospitalizations; or one that looks like South Korea, where aggressive measures to suppress spread, including extensive testing, strict social distancing, and isolation of infected people, seem to have “flattened the curve”.

The next two weeks will be critical in determining what the next year looks like in America.




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