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U.S. hits bleak milestones with record numbers of hospitalizations, deaths

The U.S. hit new milestones with the coronavirus Wednesday with record numbers of hospitalization, deaths and a medical staffing system that's burning out. Dr. Amy Compton-Phillips, chief clinical officer for the Providence Health System, which runs hospitals across the country, joins Judy Woodruff discuss.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The surge of COVID infections and illness is pushing much of the country to its worst point since the pandemic began.

    More than 100,000 people are hospitalized. That's nearly double the highest point of the spring. The U.S. has had a total so far of 14 million cases out of 65 million around the world. That is more than any other nation Earth, and four million of them in the U.S. just over the past month.

    Deaths are also climbing. More than 2,800 were reported yesterday alone, again, a single-day record. The death toll overall has now passed 275,000.

    Dr. Robert Redfield, the director of the Centers for Disease Control, warned in an appearance with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce yesterday that the winter could be even worse.

  • Robert Redfield:

    The reality is, December and January and February are going to be rough times. I actually believe they're going to be the most difficult time in the public health history of this nation, largely because of the stress that it's going to put on our health care system.

    The mortality concerns are real. And I do think, unfortunately, before we see February, we could be close to 450,000 Americans have died from this virus, but that's not a fait accompli.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Dr. Redfield said that masks, social distancing and other precautions by the public could help prevent the very worst projections.

    In an interview today on CNN, president-elect Biden said that he will call at his inauguration for everyone to wear masks during the next 100 days.

    The growing COVID caseload around the U.S. is putting an enormous strain on hospitals and health care workers.

    Let's hear more now from Dr. Amy Compton-Phillips. She's executive vice president and chief clinical officer of Providence. It's a health care system operating 51 hospitals and more than 1,000 clinics in Texas, Alaska, and five more states across the Western U.S.

    Dr. Compton-Phillips, thank you very much for being with us.

    Tell us, briefly, what kind of services do you provide? And what are you seeing in your facilities?

  • Amy Compton-Phillips:

    We provide the wide range of any service you need in health care. We have everything from primary care office visits, through acute care hospitalizations, through rehab services afterwards.

    And we are seeing what the rest of the country is seeing, and that's this huge uptick in people who've acquired the infection, and then, therefore, a couple of weeks after they get the infection, the demand for health care.

    And so our ICUs, our hospitals are filling up rapidly with people who need acute care for this really dangerous germ.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And so do you have adequate space? How are you dealing with the space issue, first of all, bed space?

  • Amy Compton-Phillips:

    Yes.

    So, the physical bed space is probably the easiest part to solve, because we have been able to work on that now for 10 months. And so we have figured out, how do we flex up and down as we get more and more patients in? How do we convert leftover old storage rooms into ICUs? How do we create negative pressure rooms, right?

    So, we can solve for the space. The thing that's much harder to solve for, because of the broad base of the pandemic right now across the country, is the people to operate those newly added beds.

    We don't have the ICU staff, the skilled nurses, the equipment, people who can manage things like ventilators and high-flow oxygen to take care of all those beds that we're opening up. And that is really the hardest part about where we are today.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, where do you go for that — for those skilled workers? Where do you find them? How do you find them?

  • Amy Compton-Phillips:

    Everything from seeing if people who've recently retired are willing come back in, you know, even the traveler nurses, so the folks that go around and help out where we need bump-ups temporarily for new infections, right? They're all taken.

    We don't have those anymore. So we're turning to people who've retired. And we're turning to people who previously worked outside of an ICU setting and rapidly getting them skilled and trained to work in an ICU setting.

    We're using telehealth services to make it so that the ICU doctors that are in short supply can cover for other doctors, for orthopedists that are covering ICU beds now with consultation using telehealth monitoring in ICUs.

    And so we are, by hook or by crook, really trying to rapidly scale up the human beings we need to take care of all these patients. And exactly like you said in your opening, what we're worried about is that, if this continues, we're going to run out. And it is painful. As a clinician, you don't want to let people die for things that are preventable because you didn't have enough of something.

    This is really outside the bounds of what we're used to experiencing in the U.S.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    What sort of strains is this putting on your people, the people who work for you who take care of these patients?

  • Amy Compton-Phillips:

    Enormous strains.

    We have had several of our own caregivers, it — and it's hard to even talk about — commit suicide. We have had six people commit suicide in the past three months because of the stress and the strain. Never had anything remotely like that in the past.

    We have just finished surveying all of our people who work with us, and the rates of burnout are going up dramatically because of the workload, not only the workload, but because of the incredible challenges of seeing so many sick people in there that don't need to be there.

    We have offered services to help our own employees, everything from meditation apps all the way up through on-demand mental health care, on-demand counseling with our behavioral health concierge.

    And the thing, we have had over 15,000 of our employees take advantage of the services, over half of whom need tele-spiritual health, because this has been a shot to the soul. People go into health care because they care about other human beings. And the fact that we're seeing so much suffering right now is tearing at the people who are caring for the patients.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So hard to hear this, Dr. Compton-Phillips.

    What do you need in order to get through this? Clearly, you need people to try to avoid getting sick, to the extent that they can. But what do you need to support the demand that's coming?

  • Amy Compton-Phillips:

    We need people to help.

    Dr. Redfield just said on your earlier opening segment that we do not have to get to the worst-case scenario. And the way we avoid that worst-case scenario is people doing the things that they are so sick and tired of doing, wearing the masks, minimizing social contact outside your bubble, staying home, staying apart.

    And right now, over the holidays, just like we saw Thanksgiving, where people chucked the mask and went traveling, Christmas is coming, right? We are used to being around family and loved ones. And if we do what we have always done around the holidays, this is going to get so much worse.

    We need people to stay home. We need people to do everything they can just for a few more months, and then we can start having burn-the-mask parties next summer. But, for now, please, stay home, because your life depends on it.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Dr. Amy Compton-Phillips, chief medical officer with the Providence health care system, thank you.

    And we wish you the very best, you and all of your colleagues. Thank you very much.

  • Amy Compton-Phillips:

    Thanks.

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