Right now it’s impossible to know how widespread coronavirus will be in the U.S., but hospitals on the front lines of the fight are preparing.
The CDC has released guidelines for hospitals and health professionals meant to prevent the spread of coronavirus — things like making every effort to interview the suspected patient by phone or video conference rather than in person and putting on protective equipment before facing a patient. Some protocols are modified plans from past pandemics.
"With Ebola, with seasonal influenza and possibly pandemic influenza. So these are plans that have already existed that people should be trained on. And ... right now it's really about implementing them," said Dr. Cyrus Shahpar, epidemiologist and director of Resolve to Save Lives.
Personal protective equipment, or PPE, is a big concern: Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar says the U.S. has 30 million surgical masks and 12 million N95 masks stockpiled, but that's well short of the at least 300 million N95 masks health care workers would need in the case of a larger outbreak.
HCA Healthcare, a hospital system that operates 185 hospitals in more than 20 states, told Newsy it's identified alternative sources for things like gowns, face shields, N95 respirators and linens, and that it's prepared to share system wide.
In New York, the state Health Department has dipped into a stockpile created over a decade ago to help mitigate any shortages at hospitals. New York is also monitoring hospital capacity by tracking the number of vacant hospital beds and isolation units, as well as emergency department activity.
Rural hospitals are especially vulnerable to supply shortages. Some hospitals, like the University of Colorado Hospital in Denver, said they learned from the 2009 H1N1 pandemic to have their own stockpiles.
"More supplies that we can reuse. For instance, we have several hundred respirators that we can use and we can hand out to staff that way. We're not solely reliant on shortages if it happens," said Clint Anderson, director of emergency preparedness at University of Colorado Hospital.
And then there are the special challenges facing emergency rooms, like a shortage of test kits.
"We don't have the capabilities to screen every single page of every single person that wants a COVID-19 test. So the tests are limited to only those people that meet certain criteria ... because there is not as many test kits available for us. And also there is not the infrastructure in place to test everybody in the community for it, either," said Mike Hastings, President of the Emergency Nurses Association.
The fear is that emergency rooms may be overrun by patients who are not seriously ill and will get others sick while they seek help.
"Patients with no insurance or people who are underinsured or have no primary care, the only recourse they have is to go to the emergency department. And so our emergency departments are already operating at near capacity," Dr. Matt Fuller, assistant professor director of global health at University of Utah's Division of Emergency Medicine, told Newsy.
And if ambulances get overwhelmed transporting worried or mildly ill patients, that could slow response times for critically ill patients, too. Health care workers Newsy spoke with say there's one thing they know they have to prepare for: the possibility of getting sick themselves. Fuller, who works in an ER, told Newsy he's definitely concerned he'll contract the illness but is mentally prepared for what's to come in the weeks ahead.
"My wife and I have sat down and said, you know, if something changes or if I'm sick, you know, what should we do as a family, or what should our expectations be as a family? And I think that's helped put both of us at ease, because now we know what we're going to be doing both for our kids and as a family unit," Fuller said.