‘Nobody knows quite what to expect’: Nurses and doctors brace for flood of coronavirus patients

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Health professional with a medical instrument. Photo credit: Pixabay.

California is scrambling to line up more medical resources ahead of an expected flood of COVID-19 patients over the next few weeks. 

In an executive order signed Monday, Governor Gavin Newsom called for 50,000 extra hospital beds and an expansion of the health care workforce. The order would allow retired doctors and nurses to return to the medical frontlines in the battle against the coronavirus. An estimated 37,000 workers are needed, Newsom said. 

On today’s Daily Dose, Dr. Michael Wilkes, a professor of medicine and global medicine, describes what preparations he and other health care professionals are currently taking. 

“Nobody knows quite what to expect. We know that it could be bad,” he says.

So far, there are a dozen patients at each hospital he’s been to. He says hospitals are at one-third of their usual capacities, and that’s because there are fewer elective procedures. 

Some staff are out sick, but doctors don’t have to work longer shifts because there’s a backup system with on-call staff, he says.

However, nurses are experiencing the brunt of the outbreak, and they’re feeling fearful and unprotected, Wilkes says. 

KCRW: Is the problem a lack of equipment such as masks, gowns, etc.?

There is enough equipment right now, but the issue is about allocating resources, Wilkes says.  

“The rules are constantly being adjusted. And [every morning] the rule enforcers ... at the hospitals are not sure what rules [they] are supposed to be enforcing.” 

At one local emergency area with lots of high-risk patients, medical professionals had orders to not use personal protective gear (PPE) unless absolutely necessary, says Wilkes. 

When patients undergo cardiac arrest, health care workers are concerned about not having enough time to get into their PPE, he adds.  

“This takes a while to get everything all set. They're worried that patients might die as a result of this. They're being asked to have two or three people constantly in PPE for these patients that go south, and need urgent attention.

The idea [is] that everybody who comes in is assumed to be infected unless proven otherwise ... particularly patients who are having cardiac arrest or something where there's going to be lots of opportunity to be infected.” 

Do doctors and nurses see this as the calm before the storm?

“We’re looking at New York and to Europe and Asia. I think that we're well prepared if we do get a storm. There's lots of planning, lots of thinking about what would happen. But right now, everybody's just very cautious, ready if we need to, but hopeful that we won't need to,” says Wilkes.