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What the data is telling us about the coronavirus

As more states order residents to hunker down amid a rapidly expanding outbreak, hospitals in the U.S. are preparing for an onslaught of new patients infected with COVID-19. But whether hospitals exceed capacity will depend on how quickly the government moves to stem the spread of new cases. Annie Waldman, a reporter for ProPublica, joins Hari Sreenivasan from more on what to expect.

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  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    A recent model was developed to help hospitals forecast what they can expect as the cases of covered 19 rise. I recently spoke with Annie Waldman, reporter at ProPublica, about those findings. It's been a bit of an abstract idea that we don't have enough hospital beds. So how did you and your colleagues of ProPublica go about calculating this?

  • Annie Waldman:

    So this was a question that we really wanted to answer. You know how many? When coronavirus starts spreading across the United States, how will our hospital capacity actually be impacted? So we decided to collaborate with Harvard's Global Health Institute and Dr. Shah, who had data looking at hospitals in regions across the United States and what would happen under three different scenarios of infection: 20 percent of the population getting the disease; 40 percent; 60 percent. Over three different time periods. And this enabled us to see which hospital regions would be the most stressed when coronavirus hits the country.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    So on your site here, you've got kind of nine different maps. So really, kinda, upper left is the, the best case scenario, we only get 20 percent and it's over an 18 month period. Right? So it's the map looks kind of green there. Things look pretty good. And then really in the opposite lower right corner, we see the worst case scenario, which is that we get 60 percent infection and that's in six months. So even if we picked somewhere in the middle, we are still looking at lots of deep shades of red that is above 100 percent capacity.

  • Annie Waldman:

    Right. And that's the most frightening thing about these projections, is that even if you look at the best case scenario where the beds are or where the infection rate is 20 percent over 18 months, our bed capacity will still be, on average, 95 percent full. That means in some regions they'll need to double their beds or even triple their beds. In the best case scenario, where 40 percent of the population gets sick over 12 months, which would probably happen with the types of social distancing we're seeing today, we're still looking at having to double our capacity in hospital beds across the United States.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    But you've also got kind of a dialog box right beneath there where people can just type in where they live. And then it's giving you kind of a bar graph of, again, with these different scenarios. And that's specific to the region that you're living in.

  • Annie Waldman:

    What we wanted to do was give the public an opportunity to look at their hospital system and see what the capacity would be like under these different scenarios. And what you find is that in some regions that are incredibly well resourced, like eastern Long Island, you will find that they will need to increase their capacity in a best, in a moderate scenario, by eight times, which means that they will have to either build beds, create field hospitals or decrease the capacity that they currently have in the hospital.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Because it's not just about whether you live in a big city, because big cities also come with big populations, right? So really, your best bet might be kind of a rural North Dakota if you can get to that hospital.

  • Annie Waldman:

    Well, there are there are caveats with that as well. You know, rural North Dakota, excuse me, might also have the beds, but they don't necessarily have the expertise to handle the complex cases. So if you ask yourself, where would you rather be, North Dakota or Brooklyn during the coronavirus crisis? That's a good question. It kind of depends if you would rather have a bed that you can be in for sure or a staff and that has expertise to actually deal with these cases.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Given the information that we have been seeing come out of, especially Italy, where you see these doctors really just at their wits end saying, I'm doing the best I can, and our hospital is drowning, how are our American hospitals preparing?

  • Annie Waldman:

    You know, we're seeing the news coming from China and Italy. And hospitals are trying so hard to create these plans to triage patients. There's going to be an influx of patients in the coming weeks. I've already been hearing from doctors that I've been speaking with that they've been expanding their capacity, trying to cancel all elective surgeries, open up other wings of the hospital. Some hospitals are thinking about how they can create hospital beds in untraditional places like cafeterias. And so, you know, I think that they're really trying to prep for the influx of patients that are going to come in, but they're also struggling with a lack of capacity or lack of resources right now. So gloves are in shortage, masks, we heard about this, are in shortage. The CDC is now giving relatively softer standards for how doctors can prepare themselves. So we're seeing, you know, essentially hospitals trying to prepare, but not necessarily being able to, given what they have on hand right now.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    What about the notion of having these comfort ships come off shore in different places?

  • Annie Waldman:

    I mean, we're gonna need all the resources that we can take at this point. You know, it's not just about sailing those cruise ships into the Bay of Brooklyn or San Francisco. It's also about thinking about what kinds of doctors around the world can we tap into? Can we rely on our Canadian friends, our friends in Mexico to help send doctors and nurses over to help increase our own capacity as we really take on this search?

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Annie when you looked at the data and you finally visualized all of it. What surprised you the most?

  • Annie Waldman:

    I think the thing that surprised me the most is just we have been talking about hospital capacity for a long time. You know, hospitals have been closing down their urban and rural areas. There have been mergers which have decreased hospital beds. And we really haven't been thinking about what would happen if a pandemic affected this country. What would happen if the 1918 flu were to strike now? And unfortunately, that lack of preparation has led us to where we are now. We are seeing something very similar to the early stages of the 1918 Spanish flu. And so we have to really think, you know, should we have been better prepared? And that's been the most surprising thing for me.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Alright. Annie Waldman from ProPublica, joining us from New Orleans tonight. Thanks so much.

  • Annie Waldman:

    Thank you so much.

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