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New HHS survey reveals the COVID-19 challenges U.S. hospitals face

A new report from the inspector general of the Department of Health and Human Services offers a snapshot of what hospitals are facing nationwide as the coronavirus spreads. A survey of more than 320 hospitals found week-long waits for COVID-19 test results, insufficient staff to run ventilators and shortages of basic cleaning supplies. Assistant Inspector General Ann Maxwell joins Judy Woodruff.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    We now have the first national snapshot of what hospitals are facing around the country as this emergency escalates.

    A new survey from the inspector general's office at the Department of Health and Human Services surveyed more than 320 hospitals during the week of March 23. It found hospitals needing to train other staff to help patients on ventilators.

    The survey showed many hospitals waiting seven days or more to get test results. And some didn't have enough basic cleaning supplies in stock.

    Ann Maxwell oversaw this, as the assistant inspector general for evaluation and inspections. And she joins me now.

    Ann Maxwell, thank you very much for talking with us.

    Not even enough cleaning supplies. Is this as bad as it sounds?

  • Ann Maxwell:

    We heard of a number of challenges across the country from the hospitals we spoke to.

    And you're right. We saw challenges in terms of a lack of PPE, cleaning supplies, thermometers, toilet paper, food, indeed.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And how could this be?

    I think people are looking at this and thinking, yes, this coronavirus has come upon us quickly, but how surprising was it to you, as somebody who works for the Department of Health and Human Services, that hospitals would be so shorthanded?

  • Ann Maxwell:

    What we found is, the emergence of COVID-19 is really creating unprecedented challenges for the hospitals around this country.

    And we focused on, with this report, what were the challenges they face, so that we could make sure their voices and their experiences were part of the decision-making and support that was coming from all levels of federal government, state government and local government?

  • Judy Woodruff:

    The — one of the main findings I see was that the difficulty with testing, having enough of the testing, getting the results back quickly enough.

    What did you find in that regard?

  • Ann Maxwell:

    That's a particularly interesting challenge, because it demonstrates one of the interesting aspects of this report.

    By looking at a snapshot in time, we were able to look at all the challenges, not only as individual challenges, but how they intersect with each other and actually exacerbate each other to create greater stress and challenge for the hospital.

    So, with respect to testing, we found that hospitals were telling us it would take about seven days to get the test back. And in that time, that patient had to be treated as a positive case. So, that patient was taking up a bed in an isolation unit. They had to use PPE. And it even affected staffing.

    So, this one challenge had a domino effect, creating other challenges throughout the hospital.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And one of the other findings I think was so disturbing, it said one hospital received two shipments from the Federal Emergency Management Agency with productive gear that had expired 10 years ago.

    Another hospital got 1,000 masks from federal and state governments,. And half of the masks were for children and thus not usable for adults. And, finally, there were some masks that were dry-rotted.

    Again, I mean, how could it be?

  • Ann Maxwell:

    Yes, hospitals expressed a lot of challenges and uncertainty about getting — restocking their supplies that they need so desperately.

    And, as you mentioned, there were concerns about both the quantity and quality of supplies coming from both federal and state national — state stockpiles.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And what does this add up to? I mean, does this mean that hospitals are literally not able to do the job we ask them to do?

  • Ann Maxwell:

    One of the things that we talked about with the hospitals is not only the challenges they face, but also the solutions they were putting in place to mitigate these challenges.

    And it was incredibly amazing to see what they were doing to mitigate these challenges, the ingenuity and drive they were exhibiting in trying to address some of these challenges.

    Even with that, though, they saw pressing needs for additional government assistance to support them in this unprecedented time.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Whose responsibility is it, Ms. Maxwell, that this has fallen — that the system has fallen to this level?

  • Ann Maxwell:

    We were looking at this holistically.

    And, to be clear, our focus was really to get some inside experience from the hospitals to help with decision-making. We understand that very consequential decisions are being made right now. And we wanted to focus on ways that we could help.

    We know that good information from hospitals can lead to good decision-making. And that was really the focus of our study.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, does this — I mean, does this mean now that, not just the hospitals, but state and local and even federal officials are now able to look at this and do something about it?

  • Ann Maxwell:

    That is the whole point of this project, to take a snapshot in time that's nationally representative of hospitals around this country and be able to deliver that information to the key decision makers at local, state, tribal, and federal levels, so they are armed with the information they need to make good decisions to help all of us in this time of — quite trying time.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And how confident are you that the people who need to see this are going to see it?

  • Ann Maxwell:

    That's a great question.

    And one of the reasons we did this is because we realized that, at the Office of Inspector General, as an independent oversight body, we had a unique role. We could take this information and give it a platform and deliver it directly to the leadership of HHS, directly to the congressional committees and others throughout the federal government.

    So we offer this in ways to help them make those decisions.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Ann Maxwell is the assistant inspector general for the Department of Health and Human Services.

    We thank you very much.

  • Ann Maxwell:

    Thank you so much for your interest in this work.

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