Soon after the COVID-19 pandemic began last spring, Christine Choi, DO, a second-year medical resident at Harbor-UCLA Medical Center, volunteered to enter COVID-19 patient rooms. Since then, she has worked countless nights in the intensive care unit in full protective gear, often tasked with giving the sickest patients and their families the grim choice between intubation or near-certain death.
“I’m offering this guy two terrible options, and that’s how I feel about work: I can’t fix this for you and it sucks, and I’m sorry that the choices I’m giving you are both terrible,” Choi told the Los Angeles Times’ Soumya Karlamangla about one patient encounter.
While Choi exhibits an “almost startlingly positive attitude” in her work, it’s no match for the psychological burdens placed on her shoulders by the global pandemic, Karlamangla wrote. When an older female COVID-19 patient died in the hospital recently, her husband — in the same hospital with the same diagnosis — soon began struggling to breathe. Sensing that he had little time left, Choi held a mobile phone at his bedside so that each of his children could come on screen to tell him they loved him. “I was just bawling in my [personal protective equipment],” Choi said. “The sound of the family members crying — I probably will never forget that,” she said.
It was not the first time the young doctor helped family members say goodbye to a loved one, and it would not be the last. Health care providers like Choi have had to work through unimaginable tragedies and unprecedented circumstances because of COVID-19, with little time to dedicate to their own mental health or well-being.
It has been nearly a year since the US reported what was believed at the time to be its first coronavirus death in Washington State. Since then, the pandemic death toll has mushroomed to nearly 500,000 nationwide, including 49,000 Californians. These numbers are shocking, and yet they do not capture the immeasurable emotional weight that falls on the health care providers with the most intimate view of COVID-19’s deadly progression.“The horror of the pandemic has unfolded largely outside public view and inside hospitals, piling a disproportionate share of the trauma on the people whose work takes them inside their walls,” Karlamangla wrote.
Experts are deeply concerned about the psychological and physical burdens that providers must bear, and the fact that there is still no end in sight. “At least with a natural disaster, it happens, people get scattered all over the place, property gets damaged or flooded, but then we begin to rebuild,” Lawrence Palinkas, PhD, MA, a medical anthropologist at USC, told Karlamangla. “We’re not there yet, and we don’t know when that will actually occur.”
Sixty-eight percent of providers said they feel emotionally drained from their work, 59% feel burned out, 57% feel overworked, and 50% feel frustrated. The poll asked providers who say they feel burned out what contributes most to that viewpoint. One doctor from the Central Valley wrote:
“Short staffed due to people out with COVID. I’m seeing three times as many patients, with no time to chart or catch up. Little appreciation or contact from my bosses. I have never had an N95 [mask]. The emotional toll this pandemic is taking. Being sick myself and spreading it to my wife and young kids. Still not fully recovered but needing to be at work due to physician shortages. Lack of professional growth, and a sense of lack of appreciation at work and feeling overworked. The sadness of the COVID-related deaths and the stories that go along with the disease. That’s a lot of stuff to unpack.”
For one female doctor from the Bay Area who responded to the CHCF survey, the extra burdens of the pandemic have been unrelenting: “Having to work more, lack of safe, affordable, available childcare while I’m working. As a single mother, working 15 hours straight, then having to care for my daughter when I get home. Just exhausted with no days off. So many Zoom meetings all day long. Miss my family and friends.”
It is unclear how the pandemic will affect the health care workforce in the long term. For now, the damage “can be measured in part by a surge of early retirements and the desperation of community hospitals struggling to hire enough workers to keep their emergency rooms running,” Andrew Jacobs reported in the New York Times.
One of the early retirements Jacobs cited was Sheetal Khedkar Rao, MD, a 42-year-old internist in suburban Chicago. Last October, she decided to stop practicing medicineafter “the emotional burden and moral injury became too much to bear,” she said. Two of the main factors driving her decision were a 30% pay cut to compensate for the decline in revenue from primary care visits and the need to spend more time at home after her two preteen children switched to remote learning.
“Everyone says doctors are heroes and they put us on a pedestal, but we also have kids and aging parents to worry about,” Rao said.
Working Through Unremitting Sickness and Death
In addition to the psychological burden, health care providers must cope with a harsh physical toll. People of color account for most COVID-19 cases and deaths among health care workers, according to a KFF issue brief. Some studies show that health care workers of color “are more likely to report reuse of or inadequate access to [personal protective equipment] and to work in clinical settings with greater exposure to patients with COVID-19.”
“Lost on the Frontline” provides the most comprehensive picture available of health care worker deaths, because the US still lacks a uniform system to collect COVID-19 morbidity and mortality data among health care workers. A year into the project, the federal government has decided to take action. Officials at the US Department of Health and Human Services cited the project when asking the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine for a rapid expert consultation to understand the causes of deaths among health care workers during the pandemic.
The National Academies’ report, published December 10, recommends the “adoption and use of a uniform national framework for collecting, recording, and reporting mortality and morbidity data” along with the development of national reporting standards for a core set of morbidity impacts, including mental well-being and psychological effects related to working through public health crises. Some health care experts said the data gathering could be modeled on the federal government’s World Trade Center Health Program, which provides no-cost medical monitoring and treatment for workers who responded to the 9/11 terrorist attacks 20 years ago.
“We have a great obligation to people who put their lives on the line for the nation,” Victor J. Dzau, MD, president of the National Academy of Medicine, told Jacobs.
Although only 17 states are currently reporting data on the racial and ethnic breakdown of vaccine recipients, the early data indicate that there are significant disparities in who is getting vaccinated, with the share of Black and Latino people among vaccinees lower than their share of the total population in those states.
Alarmingly, in our recent conversations with health system executives,those same disparities seem to be present among healthcare workers employed by hospitals and health systems. Anecdotally, across a half-dozen health systems we’ve spoken with in the past week, most report that they’ve had about 70 percent of their workers agree to get the first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine.
However, that number looks significantly different when broken down by race and ethnicity:on average, the uptake rate among White, Asian, and Pacific Islander workers has been closer to 90-95 percent, while among Black and Latino workers, it’s been closer to 30-40 percent. Bear in mind these are employees of health systems—in many cases they’re frontline caregivers—and given their work environments you might expect them to be less hesitant to get the vaccine.
That 30-40 percent uptake rate is very worrisome, in two ways:caregivers outside of hospital settings, especially home care and nursing home workers, likely include a larger number of workers hesitant to get vaccinated. And in the general population, among whom health literacy is presumably much lower than among healthcare workers,it’s precisely those populations who are at highest risk of COVID infection, hospitalization, and death. (A further complication: health systems made it easy for their employees to get the shot. With vaccines for the general population still scarce, at-risk populations will inevitably have the most difficult time getting signed up, even if they want the vaccine.)
If health systems are the canary in the coal mine for vaccine hesitancy rates, we’re in for a tough challenge in getting the most vulnerable populations vaccinated in the months to come.
The annual J.P. Morgan Healthcare Conference is one of the best ways to diagnose the financial condition of the healthcare industry. Every January, every key stakeholder — providers, payers, pharmaceutical companies, tech companies, medical device and supply companies as well as bankers, venture capital and private equity firms — comes together in one exam room, even when it is virtual, for their annual check-up. But as we all know, this January is unlike any other as this past year has been unlike any other year.
You would have to go back to the banking crisis of 2008 to find a similar moment from an economic perspective. At the time, we were asking, “Are banks too big to fail?” The concern behind the question was that if they did fail, the economic chaos that would follow would lead to a collapse with the consumer ultimately picking up the tab. The rest is history.
Healthcare is “Too Vital to Fail”
2020 was historic in too many ways to count. But in a year when healthcare providers faced the worst financial crisis in the history of healthcare, the headline is that they are still standing. And what they proved is that in contrast to banks in 2008 that were seen by many as “too big to fail,” healthcare providers in 2020 proved that they were “too vital to fail.”
One of the many unique things about the COVID-19 pandemic is we are simultaneously experiencing a health crisis, where healthcare providers are the front line in the battle, and an economic crisis, felt in a big way in healthcare given the unique role hospitals play as the largest employer in most communities. Hospitals and health systems have done the vast majority of testing, treating, monitoring, counseling, educating and vaccinating all while searching for PPE and ventilators, and conducting clinical trials. And that’s just the beginning of the list.
Stop and think about that for a minute. What would we have done without them? Thinking through that question will give you some appreciation for the critical, challenging and central role that healthcare providers have had to play over the past year.
Simply stated, healthcare providers are the heart of healthcare, both clinically (essentially 100 percent of the care) and financially (over 50 percent of the $4 trillion annual spend on U.S. healthcare). Over the last year they stepped up and they stepped in at the moment where we needed them the most. This was despite the fact that, like most businesses, they were experiencing calamitous losses with no assurances of any assistance.
Healthcare is “Pandemic-Proof”
This was absolutely the worst-case scenario and the biggest test possible for our nation’s healthcare delivery system. Patient volume and therefore revenue dropped by over 50 percent when the panic of the pandemic was at its peak, driving over $60 billion in losses per month across hospitals and healthcare providers. At the same time, they were dramatically increasing their expenses with PPE, ventilators and additional staff. This was not heading in a good direction. While failure may not have been seen as an option, it was clearly a possibility.
The CARES Act clearly provided a temporary lifeline, providing funding for our nation’s hospitals to weather the storm. While there are more challenging times ahead, it is now clear that most are going to make it to the other side. The system of care in our country is often criticized, but when faced with perhaps the most challenging moment in the history of healthcare, our nation’s hospitals and health systems stepped up heroically and performed miraculously. The work of our healthcare providers on the front line and those who supported them was and is one thing that we all should be exceptionally proud of and thankful for.In 2020, they proved that not only is our nation’s healthcare system too vital to fail, but also that it is “pandemic proof.”
Listening to Front Line at the 2021 J.P. Morgan Healthcare Conference
There has never been a more important year to listen to the lessons from healthcare providers. They are and were the front line of our fight against COVID-19. If there was a class given about how to deal with a pandemic at an institutional level, this conference is where those lessons were being taught.
This year at the J.P. Morgan Healthcare Conference, CEOs, and CFOs from many of the most prestigious and most well-respected health systems in the world presented including AdventHealth, Advocate Aurora Health, Ascension, Baylor Scott & White Health, CommonSpirit Health, Henry Ford Health System, Intermountain Healthcare, Jefferson Health, Mass General Brigham, Northwell Health, OhioHealth, Prisma Health, ProMedica Health System, Providence, Spectrum Health and SSM Health.
I’ve been in healthcare for 30 years and this is my fifth year of writing up the summary of the non-profit provider track of the conference for Becker’s Healthcare to help share the wisdom of the crowd of provider organizations that share their stories. Clearly, this year was different and not because the presentations were virtual, but because they were inspirational.
What did we learn? The good news is that they have made many changes that have the potential to move healthcare in a much better direction and to get to a better place much faster. So, this year instead of providing you a nugget from each presentation, I am going to take a shot at summarizing what they collectively have in motion to stay vital after COVID.
10 Moves Healthcare Providers are Making to Stay Vital After-COVID
As a leader in healthcare, you will never have a bigger opportunity to drive change than right now. Smart leaders are framing this as essentially “before-COVID (BC)” and “after-COVID (AC)” and using this moment as their burning platform to drive change. Credit to the team at Providence for the acronym, but every CEO talked about this concept. As the saying goes, “never let a good crisis go to waste.” Well, we’ve certainly had a crisis, so here is a list of what the top health systems are doing to ensure that they don’t waste it and that they stay vital after-COVID:
1. Take Care of Your Team and They’ll Take Care of You: In a crisis, you can either come together as a team or fall apart. Clearly there has been a significant and stunning amount of pressure on healthcare providers. Many are fearing that mental health might be our nation’s next pandemic in the near future because they are seeing it right now with their own team. Perhaps one of their biggest lessons from this crisis has been the need to address the mental, physical and spiritual health of both team members as well as providers. They have put programs in place to help and have also built a tremendous amount of trust with their team by, in many cases, not laying off and/or furloughing employees. While they have made cuts in other areas such as benefits, this collective approach proved incredibly beneficial. And the last point here that relates to thinking differently about their team is that similar to other businesses, many health systems are making remote arrangements permanent for certain administrative roles and moving to a flexible approach regarding their team and their space in the future.
2. Focus on Health Equity, Not Just Health Care: This was perhaps the most notable and encouraging change from presentations in past years at J.P. Morgan. I have been going to the conference for over a decade, and I’ve never heard someone mention this term or outline their efforts on “health equity” — this year, nearly everyone did. In the past, they have outlined many wonderful programs on “social determinants of health,” but this year they have seen the disproportionate impact of COVID on low-income communities bringing the ongoing issue of racial disparities in access to care and outcomes to light. As the bedrock of employment in their community, this provides an opportunity to not just provide health care, but also health equity, taking an active role to help make progress on issues like hunger, homelessness, and housing. Many are making significant investments in a number of these and other areas.
3. Take the Lead in Public Health — the Message is the Medicine:One of the greatest failings of COVID, perhaps the greatest lesson learned, is the need for clear and consistent messaging from a public health perspective. That is a role that healthcare providers can and should play. In the pandemic, it represented the greatest opportunity to save lives as the essence of public health is communication — the message is the medicine. A number of health systems stepped into this opportunity to build trust and to build their brand, which are essentially one in the same. Some organizations have created a new role — a Chief Community Health Officer — which is a good way to capture the work that is in motion relative to social determinants of health as well as health equity. Many understand the opportunity here and will take the lead relative to vaccine distribution as clear messaging to build confidence is clearly needed.
4. Make the Home and Everywhere a Venue of Care:A number of presenters stated that “COVID didn’t change our strategy, it accelerated it.” For the most part, they were referring to virtual visits, which increased dramatically now representing around 10 percent of their visits vs. 1 percent before-COVID. One presenter said, “Digital has been tested and perfected during COVID,” but that is only considering the role we see digital playing in this moment. It is clear some organizations have a very narrow tactical lens while others are looking at the opportunity much more strategically. For many, they are looking at a “care anywhere and everywhere” strategy. From a full “hospital in the home” approach to remote monitoring devices, it is clear that your home will be seen as a venue of care and an access point moving forward. The pandemic of 2020 may have sparked a new era of “post-hospital healthcare” — stay tuned.
5. Bury Your Budget and Pivot to Planning:The budget process has been a source of incredible distrust, dissatisfaction and distraction for every health system for decades. The chaos and uncertainty of the pandemic forced every organization to bury their budget last year. With that said, many of the organizations that presented are now making a permanent shift away from a “budget-based culture” where the focus is on hitting a now irrelevant target set that was set six to nine months ago to a “performance-based culture” where the focus is on making progress every day, week, month and quarter. Given that the traditional annual operating budget process has been the core of how health systems have operated, this shift to a rolling forecast and a more dynamic planning process is likely the single most substantial and permanent change in how hospitals and health systems operate due to COVID. In other words, it is arguably a much bigger headline than what’s happened with virtual visits.
6. Get Your M&A Machine in Motion: It was clear from the presentations that activity around acquisitions is going to return, perhaps significantly. These organizations have strong balance sheets and while the strong have gotten stronger during COVID, the weak have in many cases gotten weaker. Many are going to be opportunistic to acquire hospitals, but at the same time they have concluded that they can’t just be a system of care delivery. They are also focused on acquiring and investing in other types of entities as well as forming more robust partnerships to create new revenue streams. Organizations that already had diversified revenue streams in place came through this pandemic the best. Most hospitals are overly reliant on the ED and surgical volume. Trying to drive that volume in a value-based world, with the end of site of service differentials and the inpatient only list, will be an even bigger challenge in the future as new niche players enter the market. As I wrote in the headline of my summary two years ago, “It’s the platform, stupid.” There are better ways to create a financial path forward that involve leveraging their assets — their platform — in new and creative ways.
7. Hey, You, Get into the Cloud:With apologies for wrapping a Rolling Stones song into a conference summary, one of the main things touted during presentations was “the cloud” and their ability to pull clinical, operational and financial dashboards together to monitor the impact of COVID on their organization and organize their actions. Focus over the last decade has been on the clinical (implementing EHRs), but it is now shifting to “digitizing operations” with a focus on finance and operations (planning, cost accounting, ERPs, etc.) as well as advanced analytics and data science capabilities to automate, gather insight, manage and predict. It is clear that the cloud has moved from a curiosity to a necessity for health systems, making this one of the biggest areas of investment for every health system over the next decade.
8. Make Price Transparency a Key Differentiator: One of the great lessons from Amazon (and others) is that you can make a lot of money when you make something easy to buy. While many health systems are skeptical of the value of the price transparency requirements, those that have a deep understanding of both their true cost of care and margins are using this as an opportunity to prove their value and accelerate their strategy to become consumer-centric. While there is certainly a level of risk, no business has ever been unsuccessful because they made their product easier to understand and access. Because healthcare is so opaque, there is an opening for healthcare providers to build trust, which is their main asset, and volume, which is their main source of revenue, by becoming stunningly easy to do business with. This may be tough sledding for some as this isn’t something healthcare providers are known for. To understand this, spend a few minutes on Tesla’s website vs. Ford’s. The concept of making something easy, or hard, to buy will become crystal clear as fast as a battery-driven car can go from zero to 60.
9. Make Care More Affordable:This represents the biggest challenge for hospitals and health systems as they ultimately need to be on the right side of this issue or the trust that they have will disappear and they will remain very vulnerable to outside players. All are investing in advanced cost accounting systems (time-driven costing, physician costing, supply, and drug costing) to truly understand their cost and use that as a basis to price more strategically in the market. Some are dropping prices for shoppable services and using loss leader strategies to build their brand. The incoming Secretary of Health and Human Services has a strong belief regarding the accountability of health systems to be consumer centric. The health systems that understand this are working to get ahead of this issue as it is likely one of their most significant threats (or opportunities) over the next decade. This means getting all care to the right site of care, evaluating every opportunity to improve, and getting serious about eliminating the need for expensive care through building healthy communities. If you’re worried about Wal-Mart or Amazon, this is your secret weapon to keep them on the sideline.
10. Scale = Survival: One of the big lessons here is that the strong got stronger, the weak got weaker. For the strong, many have been able to “snapback” in financial performance because they were resilient. They were able to designate COVID-only facilities, while keeping others running at a higher capacity. To be clear, while most health systems are going to get to the other side and are positioned better than ever, there are many others that will continue to struggle for years to come. According to our data at Strata, we see 25 percent operating at negative margins right now and another 50 percent just above breakeven. They key to survival moving forward, for those that don’t have a captive market, will be scale. If this pandemic proved one thing relative to the future of health systems it is this — scale equals survival.
When Will We Return to Normal?
Based on what the projections that these health systems shared, the “new normal” for health systems for the first half of 2021 will be roughly 95 percent of prior year inpatient volume with a 20 percent year-over-year drop in ED volume and a drop of 10-15 percent in observation visits. So, the pain will continue, but given the adjustments that were already made in 2020, it looks like they will be able to manage through COVID effectively. While there will be a pickup in the second half of 2021, the safe bet is that a “return to normal” pre-COVID volumes likely won’t occur until 2022. And there are some who believe that some of the volume should have never been there to begin with and we might see a permanent shift downward in ED volume as well as in some other areas.
With that said, I’ll steal a quote from Bert Zimmerli, the CFO of Intermountain Healthcare, who said, “Normal wasn’t ever nearly good enough in healthcare.”In that spirit, the goal should be to not return to normal, but rather to use this moment as an opportunity to take the positive changes driven by COVID — from technology to processes to areas of focus to a sense of responsibility — and make them permanent.
Thanking Our “Healthcare Heroes”
We’ll never see another 2020 again, hopefully. With that said, one of the silver linings of the year is everything we learned in healthcare. The most important lesson was this — in healthcare there are literally heroes everywhere. To each of them, I just want to say “thank you” for being there for us when we needed you the most. We should all be writing love letters to those on the front line who risked their lives to save others. Our nation’s healthcare system has taken a lot of criticism through the years from those on the outside, often with a blind eye to how things work in practice vs. in concept. But this year we all got to see first-hand what’s happening inside of healthcare — the heroic work of our healthcare providers and those who support them.
They faced the worst crisis in the history of healthcare. They responded heroically and were there for our families and friends.
They proved that healthcare is too vital to fail. They proved that healthcare is pandemic-proof.
The first month of the pandemic was also supposed to be the month I got pregnant, but my clinic closed and plans changed. Doctors and nurses needed personal protective equipment to tend to patients with covid-19, not women with recurrent miscarriages.
When the clinic reopened several months later, it turned out my husband and I had only been delaying yet another loss: In late August, he obeyed the medical center’s strict coronavirus protocols by waiting anxiously in the car while I trudged inside, masked and hand-sanitized, to receive a miscarriage diagnosis alone. I searched the ultrasound screen for the rhythmic beat of a heart, and then accepted that whatever had once been there was now gone.
But that was 2020 for you, consistent only in its utter crappiness. For every inspiring video of neighbors applauding a shift change at the hospital, another video of a bone-tired nurse begging viewers to believe covid was real, it wasn’t a hoax, wear a mask.
For every protest organized by activists who understood racism is also a long-term crisis, an appearance by the Proud Boys; for every GoFundMe successfully raising money for a beloved teacher’s hospital bills, a bitter acknowledgment that online panhandling is our country’s version of a safety net.
Millions of citizens stood in line for hours to vote for the next president and then endured weeks of legal petitions arguing that their votes should be negated. The basis for these legal actions were conspiracy theories too wild to be believed, except that millions of other citizens believed them.
And that was 2020 for you, too: accepting the increasingly obvious reality that the country was in peril, built on iffy foundations that now buckled under pressure. My loved ones who worked as waiters or bartenders or physical therapists were choosing between health and paychecks, and even from the lucky safety of my work-from-home job, each day began to feel like watching America itself arrive at a hospital in bad shape, praying that doctors or clergy could find something they were able to save.
Is there a heartbeat?
You want the answer to be yes, but even so, it was hard to imagine how we would come back from this.
What kind of delusional person would even try to get pregnant in this world? In my case it would never be a happy accident; it would always be a herculean effort. And so it seemed I should have some answers.
How do you explain to a future child: Sorry, we can’t fix climate change; we can’t even get people to agree that we should wear masks in grocery stores? How do you explain the frustration of seeing brokenness, and then the wearying choice of trying to fix it instead of abandoning it? How do you say, Love it anyway. You’re inheriting an absolute mess, but love it anyway?
I found myself asking a lot of things like this in 2020, but really they were all variations of the same question: What does it mean to have hope?
But in the middle of this, scientists worked quietly in labs all over the world. They applied the scientific method with extraordinary discipline and speed. A vaccine was developed. Tens of thousands of volunteers rolled up their sleeves and said, Try it out on me.
It was approved, and a nurse from Long Island was the first American televised receiving it. Her name was Sandra Lindsay, an immigrant from Jamaica who had come to the United States 30 years ago and who had spent the last year overseeing critical care teams in back-to-back shifts. She said she had agreed to go first to show communities of color, long abused, brushed-off or condescended to by the medical system, that the vaccine was safe.
Here was hope. And more than that, here was hope from a woman who had more reason than most to be embittered: an exhausted health-care worker who knew too well America’s hideous racial past and present, who nonetheless also knew there was only one way out of the tunnel. Here she was, rolling up her own sleeve, and there were the lines of hospital employees ready to go after her, and there were the truck drivers ferrying shipments of syringes.
I can’t have been the only person to watch the video of those early inoculations, feeling elated and tired, and to then burst into tears. I can’t have been the only person to realize that even as 2020 revealed brokenness, it also contained such astounding undercurrents of good.
The scientific method works whether you accept it or not. Doctors try to save you whether you respected public-health guidelines or not. Voter turnout was astronomical because individual citizens realized they were all, every one of them, necessary pieces in a puzzle, even if they couldn’t see what the final picture was supposed to look like.
The way to believe in America is to believe those things are passed down, too.
Sometime in October, a couple of months after my last miscarriage — when the country was riding up on eight months of lonely and stoic birthdays, graduations, deaths and weddings — I went into the bathroom and saw a faint second line on a First Response pregnancy test. It was far from my first rodeo, so I knew better than to get excited. I mentioned it to my husband with studied nonchalance, I told him that I’d test again in a few days but that we should assume the worst would happen.
Two weeks after that, I had a doctor’s appointment, and then another a week later, each time assuming the worst, but each time scheduling another appointment anyway, until eventually I was further along than I’d ever gotten before — by one day, then three days, then thirty.
I am not a superstitious person. I don’t believe that good things always come to those who deserve them. I believe that stories regularly have sad endings and that it’s often nobody’s fault when they do, and that we should tell more stories with sad endings so that people who experience them know that they’re not alone.
But 2020 has taught me that I am, for better or worse, someone who wants to hope for things. To believe in the people who developed vaccines. In the people who administered them. In Sandra Lindsay. In the people who delivered groceries, who sewed masks, who have long cursed America’s imperfect systems and long fought to change them, who still donate $10 to a sick teacher’s GoFundMe.
At my most recent appointment, the doctor’s office was backed up in a holiday logjam. I sat in the exam room for nearly three hours while my husband again waited anxiously in the car. I texted him sporadic updates and tried to put hope in a process that so far had not seemed to warrant my hope.
It all felt precarious. The current reality always feels precarious.
And yet there we all are together, searching for signs of life, hoping that whatever we emerge to can be better than what we had before, and that whatever we build will become our new legacy. The sonographer finally arrived and turned on the machine.
More people in the US are hospitalized with the coronavirus than at any other time.
More Americans are currently hospitalized with Covid-19 than at any other point in the pandemic, a grim indicator that the third big wave of cases in the US may be the worst wave to date.
On November 11, 65,368 people across the United States were in the hospital after testing positive for the novel coronavirus, according to data reported by the Covid Tracking Project. That’s significantly higher than the last peak of 59,940 recorded on April 15, when the New York City area was the epicenter of the US outbreak. (As the Covid Tracking Project notes, the national and state hospital data have been erratic and incomplete, and reported totals may continue to shift.)
What’s clear from the data is that Covid-19 migrated across the country to new hot spot regions this fall. In the spring, hospitalizations were overwhelmingly concentrated in the Northeast. In the summer, more than half of hospitalized Covid-19 patients were in the South and West: states like Arizona, California, Florida, Georgia, and Texas.
Now the Midwest, Great Plains, and Mountain West are the new hot spots, but some former hot spots are warming back up as well, with cases and hospitalizations surging again. “There’s so many places, with so many people, that the numbers are just drastically higher,” said Daniel McQuillen, an assistant professor of medicine at Tufts and a senior physician in the division of infectious diseases at Beth Israel Lahey Health, at a Wednesday Infectious Diseases Society of America briefing.
As of November 11, Texas had the highest number of hospitalizations of any state (6,779), and Illinois was in second place with 5,042 people in the hospital; other Midwestern states like Michigan, Indiana, and Wisconsin have seen record spikes in cases in recent weeks and now have more than 2,000 people hospitalized each.
“The hospitalization number is the best indicator of where we are,” Eric Topol, a professor of molecular medicine and director of the Scripps Research Translational Institute, told Vox this summer. That’s because it’s a better measurement of the severity of the pandemic than Covid-19 testing, which only finds a fraction of cases and includes more mild cases. “We’re going to go to new heights in the pandemic that we haven’t seen before. Not that what we saw before wasn’t horrifying enough.”
Some states like Utah and North Dakota have lower total hospitalizations but also fewer hospitals and hospital beds — and they’re now reaching a woeful tipping point of hospitals stretched to maximum capacity.
“Here in Salt Lake City, we provide a lot of [specialized infectious disease and ICU care] to people in four states as far away as Montana, Arizona, and Wyoming … and our hospitals and caregivers are extraordinarily stressed,” Andrew Pavia, the chief of pediatric infectious diseases at the University of Utah School of Medicine, said at the IDSA briefing. “Our ICUs are full, but that includes overflow ICUs that have been purpose-built, taking advantage of the time we’ve had to plan.”
This was, unfortunately, to be expected (although it wasn’t inevitable). As the weather has turned cooler and states failed to fully control their outbreaks, transmission picked up when people moved indoors. Nearly all the states currently experiencing an increase in new cases and hospitalizations also did not experience major outbreaks in the spring or summer, so residents were less fearful and took less action to prevent the spread of the virus.
“There was a political climate where there’s distrust of government and reluctance to take harsh measures,” in places like Utah, said Pavia. “Many of these states did not have mask mandates until very recently, and some don’t even have them today and have very limited restrictions on mass gatherings.”
Deaths are ticking up again too, reaching 1,592 on November 11, reversing a steady decline that had begun in early May after the first wave and in August after the second wave.
Cumulatively, 10.2 million Americans have tested positive for Covid-19 since the pandemic began, and more than 233,000 of them have died. With hospitalizations surging and several states reporting thousands of new cases a day, experts say we are in for a difficult late fall and winter.
The new hospitalizations, and the untenable pressure they’re putting on the health care system, are also a reminder of how critical it is for states to implement and enforce measures like mandatory face masks, restrictions on bars and restaurants, and for the federal government to fix testing and contact tracing problems. “It should be an all-points bulletin to really bear down on this, because otherwise there’s no limit on where this might go,” said Topol.
Hospitals are running out of staff and beds for Covid-19 patients
The good news is that infectious disease experts think many hospitals are better prepared to handle surges in Covid-19 patients than they were in the spring. For the most part, they have the equipment they need and they know how to deploy it. They also have more standardized protocol for treating the sickest patients.
Yet hospitals in hot spots across the country are maxing out their staff, equipment, and beds, with doctors and nurses warning that the worst-case scenario of hospital resources being overwhelmed is on the horizon if their states don’t get better control of the coronavirus.
“The surge of Covid-19 patients takes away from our ability to care for the sick patients that are already in Arkansas,” said a nurse at a major health system in Little Rock, who asked to go unnamed fearing retaliation from her employer. “We have so many nurses quarantined that we’re not able to staff our oncology unit appropriately, and our patients are being negatively affected. Covid-19 is right now overburdening our healthcare system in Arkansas.”
Hospitals in several states are also straining to find enough specialists to treat the very sick Covid-19 patients. “ICU beds don’t take care of people — you need staff,” said Pavia of the University of Utah School of Medicine. “And one of the things that many of the Western states have in common is a relative shortage of the people we need to take care of very sick people during a pandemic like this: ICU doctors, probably most importantly ICU nurses, and infectious disease physicians, respiratory therapists. These folks have been working flat out for eight or nine months, and three months into the surge, they’re exhausted, they’re stressed.”
Staffing is a universal problem in hot spots. Gov. Gary Herbert of Utah said the state will have to bring in out-of-state nurses to help with the surge, and officials and health care providers in South Dakota, Tennessee, Arizona, and Wisconsin are requesting them too:v
In Texas, officials are setting up medical tents in El Paso and Lubbock in response to the rapid rise in hospitalized Covid-19 patients and a dwindling number of hospital beds. “El Paso, Texas, is almost completely out of ICU beds; Lubbock, the same thing,” said McQuillen.
“We are the 11th-largest city in the state of Texas and we have two field hospitals on their way to town,” Jarrett Atkinson, Lubbock’s city manager, told KCBD on Tuesday. “I can absolutely assure you that never in my career did I think we would be deploying field hospitals to Lubbock, Texas.”
According to McQuillen, both El Paso and Lubbock have been “much less stringent with their populations [mandating] simple things like wearing masks, and socially distancing.” He compared that to Massachusetts and other Northeast states where he says strict measures during the spring surge made a big difference in reversing the steep climb in cases and hospitalizations. Yet too many states ignored that critical lesson, and now are paying the price.
Daily deaths are creeping up again but are still far below the earlier peak
While daily Covid-19 hospitalizations are surging, another key metric, daily deaths, reached 1,562 on November 11, the highest it has been since May during the first surge, according to the Covid Tracking Project. It’s an ominous sign that deaths could reach unprecedented levels in the coming weeks and months, given that cases and hospitalizations are now at new highs.
It’s possible, experts say, that fewer people who are hospitalized will end up dying in this winter stage of the pandemic as compared to the spring. As Vox’s Julia Belluz reported, there have been significant improvements in mortality in the US and Europe in the past several months, as doctors’ understanding of Covid-19 and how to treat it has improved:
Though there’s still a lot of progress to be made, the treatment approach has become more standardized over time, said Jen Manne-Goehler, an infectious disease doctor at Brigham and Women’s and Massachusetts General hospitals. When she started treating Covid-19 patients in the spring, it felt like practice was changing every few days. Now it’s more streamlined — and that’s undoubtedly helping with survival, too.
That said, if hospitals in the hard-hit states run out of beds and staff to treat the incoming flow of patients, more people who could have been saved may die. When ICU staff were stretched in the spring, “ICU patients just didn’t get the same attention,” intensive care doctor Lakshman Swamy, who works with the Cambridge Health Alliance, told Belluz.
The number of people hospitalized with the coronavirus has climbed significantly from a month ago, straining cities that have fewer resources to weather the surges.
The patient who died on Tuesday morning at Aurora St. Luke’s Medical Center was rolled out of her room under a white sheet. One nurse, fighting back tears, stood silently in the hall as the outline of the body passed by — one more death in an eight-month-old pandemic that has no end in sight.
“Those moments, they hit the soul,” said Jodie Gord, a nurse manager who oversees a team of about 120 people at the hospital in Milwaukee.
Aurora St. Luke’s is far from alone in coming under strain. Hospitals around the United States are reeling from the rampaging spread of the coronavirus, many of them in parts of the country that initially had been spared the worst.
Approaching the eve of the election, President Trump has downplayed the steep rise in cases, attributing much of it to increased testing. But the number of people hospitalized for the virus tells a different story, climbing an estimated 46 percent from a month ago and raising fears about the capacity of regional health care systems to respond to overwhelming demand.
The exploding case numbers point to a volatile new phase in the pandemic, coming after earlier waves hit large cities such as New York, then Sun Belt states like Florida and Arizona. While some of those places have begun to bring the virus under control, the surge of hospitalizations is crippling some cities with fewer resources.
In El Paso, where the number of people hospitalized with Covid-19 has more than tripled over the past three weeks, doctors at University Medical Center have started airlifting some patients to hospitals as far away as San Antonio while treating others in a field hospital in a nearby parking lot. Across the border in Mexico, the mayor of Ciudad Juárez, himself hospitalized after testing positive for the virus for the second time, is urging a temporary ban on U.S. citizens crossing into his city.
“We have never seen this in El Paso,” said Dr. Joel Hendryx, chief medical officer at University Medical Center, one of the largest hospitals along the border. Citing the need for field hospitals, Dr. Hendryx drew a sharp contrast to the city’s earlier surge in July, when mitigation measures drove case numbers down.
Dr. Hendryx’s hospital had 195 inpatient coronavirus cases as of Tuesday compared with about 30 a month ago. In addition to the parking lot tents, officials in El Paso are converting the downtown convention center into a 50-bed hospital. Hundreds of health workers from other parts of Texas are deploying to El Paso, including an ambulance strike team with paramedics from the Houston area.
The situation is also becoming critical in states such as Idaho, Missouri, New Mexico and Utah, with frontline workers exhausted and hospitals struggling to find replacements for those testing positive each day.
At St. Luke’s Magic Valley Medical Center in Twin Falls, Idaho, where more than one-third of patients have Covid-19, administrators are sending children to a hospital in Boise, two hours away. The influx of patients from rural areas with little health infrastructure is similarly straining hospitals in Wisconsin, where cases have increased 53 percent from two weeks ago.
Across the country, case numbers have risen to fearsome new levels in recent days, with the seven-day average for new cases exceeding 70,000 for the first time in the pandemic. Twenty-six states are at or near record numbers for new infections. More than 500,000 cases have been announced in the past week. And exactly zero states are seeing sustained declines in case numbers.
On a per capita basis, smaller cities and rural counties in the Upper Midwest and Mountain West are struggling most acutely. North Dakota, South Dakota, Wisconsin and Montana lead the country in new infections per capita. Of the 12 metro areas with the highest rates of new cases over the past two weeks, 10 are in North Dakota or Wisconsin.
But the dismal trend lines are not confined to those regions. North Carolina, New Mexico, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and West Virginia have recently set seven-day records for new cases. And more big cities are starting to spiral, with alarming trends emerging in Chicago, Milwaukee and Newark.
And while the escalating case numbers had not been accompanied by a steep rise in deaths, that trend is starting to change. About 800 deaths are now being recorded across the country each day, far fewer than in the spring but up slightly from earlier this month.
Cities and towns nationwide are rushing to impose new restrictions. In Idaho, Gov. Brad Little backtracked on reopening but stopped short of a statewide mask mandate. Mr. Little limited indoor gatherings to 50 people, required masks at long-term care facilities and placed new restrictions on how bars and restaurants could serve their customers.
In Newark, all nonessential businesses will have to close at 8 p.m. beginning on Tuesday. Mayor Lori Lightfoot of Chicago imposed a curfew under which nonessential businesses must shut down from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m., and bars without a food license are no longer allowed to serve customers indoors.
In Fargo, N.D., Mayor Tim Mahoney used his emergency powers to pass the first mask mandate in the state. The mayors of Nixa and Ozark in Missouri imposed mask mandates after appeals by nearby hospitals overwhelmed by coronavirus hospitalizations.
On one of the I.C.U. floors at Aurora St. Luke’s in Milwaukee, the mood was somber on Tuesday morning as doctors and nurses made their rounds. Twenty of the 24 beds were filled, and many of the patients were on ventilators.
But the staff put on a brave face. They gave thumbs-up to patients from the hallways, walked into rooms to greet others and assisted one woman as she ate her breakfast.
Before noon, an older woman was transferred to the I.C.U. from the Covid-19 floor. Within 30 minutes of her arrival, loud beeping sent staff members running to her room, frantically grabbing personal protection gear.
The patient’s oxygen levels had plummeted to dangerously low levels, and she was going into cardiac arrest. A nurse practitioner called the patient’s family, making it clear there was a possibility she would not make it.
A staff member performed compressions on the woman in hopes of keeping her alive. After several minutes, her condition stabilized — for the moment.
She was the second patient who needed such care in just three hours. When the nurses and doctors stepped away for a breath, the woman lay on the bed, now intubated, eyes glazed over and her face pale. It was hard to see any clear signs of breathing.
Some staff members patted each other on the back. Others took deep breaths. A health care worker walked out of the patient’s room, holding a small plastic bag in her hand. Inside was jewelry to give to the family, said Ms. Gord, the nurse manager, in case the woman died.
Staff members still seemed in shock over the death of the other patient from that morning. She had become dear to the I.C.U. team, said Ms. Gord, who stood quietly and with obvious emotion as the stretcher slipped past. “Bless her soul,” she murmured. “Sweet little lady.”
Staff members said they were fighting constant exhaustion. “What’s going to happen when we cannot take care of these patients?” said Dr. Pedro Salinas, a critical care specialist, who worries about how much longer the staff can endure. “They are emotionally and mentally exhausted.”
The prospect of ending up in an overcrowded hospital ward is making some who are sick with the virus hesitant to check in. At the hospital in El Paso, staff members said some Covid-19 patients were arriving in the emergency room so debilitated that they required intubation almost immediately.
Sandra Garcia, 31, an El Paso resident who tested positive for the coronavirus last week, said she had been grappling with fatigue, shortness of breath and a loss of taste and smell, but had refrained from seeking care in the city’s crowded hospitals.
In the meantime, she is caring for a 13-year-old who also has Covid-19 and 5-year-old twins, who are all studying online from home. Ms. Garcia said she questioned why Dee Margo, El Paso’s mayor, had failed to order a shutdown of the city to curb the spike in cases.
“He’s just trying to get re-elected and it’s disgusting,” Ms. Garcia said.
Last week, Mr. Margo announced new restrictions such as closing parks to league and tournament play, but he said an order for a full city shutdown would need to come from the governor of Texas.
Dr. German Hernandez, a nephrologist who has been caring for patients at several hospitals in El Paso, said the situation was so acute that patients on oxygen were being kept in rooms in the trauma area of University Medical Center. He said that could be devastating in the event of a disaster such as the August 2019 mass shooting at a Walmart in the city that left 23 people dead.
“God forbid we have another Aug. 3 shooting because we can’t handle it right now,” Dr. Hernandez said. “We have no buffer.”