CLOSE

Social distancing matters. Here is how to do it and how it can help curb the COVID-19 pandemic. USA TODAY

This is an unprecedented storm. Please help us weather it by staying home, giving blood, and not coming to the hospital unless you are really sick.

LINKEDINCOMMENTMORE

As a health care leader for 35 years, I have seen our emergency rooms slammed by natural disasters, mass casualties and relentless flu seasons that tested us to our core.

The coronavirus is a greater menace by far. It’s the most disruptive force I have ever seen in health care in my lifetime. We are at war.

It is taxing our supplies and care teams across the country. If this virus spreads as some projections suggest, the U.S. health care system will run out of beds, ventilators, intensive care units and protective clothing for our care teams.

I understand the panic and fear. I am a father and a husband. I get it. So, let’s try to help each other. I’ll share with you the extraordinary strategies underway in our hospitals to fortify operations. In exchange, I am asking all of you to do your part to keep yourself and your family safe while preserving our health resources for the sickest patients. Remember, the longer the disease takes to spread, the more our hospitals will be spared a potentially devastating crush of patients. We are all in this together.

Soaring caseloads and all hands in

Let’s start in the Emergency Department. Our front-line care teams across the country are performing heroics as the caseload doubles roughly every two days. We are pulling our resources institutionally and across service lines. Many health networks, including ours, postponed non-emergency and non-urgent surgeries. Operating room nurses are redeployed to emergency care. These strategies — and the deployment of vital new equipment such as ventilators at our network — will help increase capacity by about 20%. 

Real heros: My wife is a doctor quietly doing her job, which is working to contain coronavirus

When I spoke with one of our ER chiefs, Dr. Joseph Underwood at the Hackensack University Medical Center, he put it this way: “All hands are in. We are prepared and laser focused. We are holding the line.’’

Beyond the heroes in scrubs, we have an army of experts strategizing in our command center 24/7: epidemiologists, internists, supply chain experts, senior staff with strong connections to federal and state health agencies. The team pivots quickly: They marshal supplies from one hospital to the next; tally the number of available isolation rooms in real time and retrofit unused areas to provide more care capacity. We have deployed two mobile satellite emergency rooms to two of our academic medical centers, self-contained negative pressure rooms, that can handle several patients, even those that need ventilators.

To turbo-charge testing, which is delayed nationwide, we have partnered with several labs and plan to open large scale testing centers with a capacity of about 2,500 per week, a far cry from where we are now. Students from our school of medicine will pitch in to aid the testing effort. This will help us extend our reach far beyond our own test unveiled last week to speed up the overall diagnostic process. But with more testing, will come more cases and we are preparing for that eventuality as well.

Your top responsibility is to stay home

So, let’s talk about your responsibility. You must do everything in your power to stop the spread of disease. Stay home! Nations around the world are tightening restrictions on people's movement. In the United States, an increasing number of cities and states are issuing stay-at-home orders. You may dismiss these measures as extreme, but if we fail to slow this alarming trajectory, deaths could soar exponentially into the hundreds of thousands or even millions. Our health system will break.

Just look at Italy, where doctors were forced to determine who lives and who dies. Please heed the advice of Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, who urged Americans to “hunker down significantly more than we as a country are doing.’’ 

Best thing you can do: To fight coronavirus, #StayHome, save lives

And remember this if you feel panicky: 80% of COVID-19 cases are mild and do not require hospitalization, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.  We’re seeing a lot of what our care teams call “the worried well.’’ Let me be clear, only come to the hospital when you are really sick: that means shortness of breath or breathing difficulty. If you have cough or mild illness with no respiratory stress, please stay home. If you are over 60 or have underlying health conditions such as asthma or diabetes and are experiencing fever and/or shortness of breath, come to the hospital.

And please, as you look for ways to feel useful, consider donating blood. We are anticipating a tremendous need in our communities. 

We are committed to delivering as we always do, even in this unprecedented storm. Please help us by doing your part. 

Robert C. Garrett is Chief Executive Officer of Hackensack Meridian Health, New Jersey’s largest health network with 17 hospitals and more than 500 patient care locations. Follow him on Twitter: @BobCGarrett

You can read diverse opinions from our Board of Contributors and other writers on the Opinion front page, on Twitter @usatodayopinion and in our daily Opinion newsletter. To respond to a column, submit a comment to letters@usatoday.com.

Autoplay
Show Thumbnails
Show Captions
Autoplay
Show Thumbnails
Show Captions
LINKEDINCOMMENTMORE
Read or Share this story: https://www.usatoday.com/story/opinion/2020/03/24/coronavirus-pandemic-menace-how-you-can-help-hospitals-column/2900575001/