How the Coronavirus Will Impact the Availability of Resources in Medical Facilities
The recent global outbreak of the “zoonic” virus classified as SARS-CoV-2 and the disease that it causes (Coronavirus Disease 2019 or COVID-19) threaten to put a large-scale strain on the US health care system. This strain will be felt not least at the insular level in medical facilities where professionals seek to treat those suffering from respiratory distress brought on by COVID-19 – a scenario rife with potential difficulties for both patient and professional. Indeed, the three main factors that distinguish COVID-19 from influenza – namely, higher death rate, level of contagion, and lack of vaccine – are cause for concern and intensify the risk involved in both contraction and treatment. The problematic issue concerning the availability of material resources in medical facilities compounds this risk. The FDA is closely monitoring COVID-19’s impact on the supply chain, and issued a statement that, “the COVID-19 outbreak would likely impact the medical product supply chain, including potential disruptions to supply or shortages of critical medical products in the U.S.” (FDA, 2020).
By all accounts, US hospitals and other health care facilities will be inundated with an influx of new and perspective Coronavirus patients, especially once testing and general awareness and sensitivity begin to increase over time as the virus continues to spread. If the resulting effects of widespread infection in East Asian and European contexts are any indication, the system will struggle to absorb the impact, as necessary medical supplies are available in insufficient quantities, and health care facilities are not equipped to treat such increased numbers of at-risk patients.
In addition to the issue of overburdened medical professionals, the material shortage brought about in part by the rapid spread of SARS-CoV-2 is primarily in the areas of breathing apparatus and medical masks.
N95 masks are the gold standard used in the professions of health care and infectious disease research and containment the world over. Together with protective eye-wear, proper covers safeguard the health of those whose occupations expose them to potential contagion. Standard issue surgical masks do not suffice, as they allow for the passage of droplets to mucus membranes of health care workers. As with all manner of medical supplies, the flow of industrial-quality masks operates on the basis of a produce-on-demand model. The general policy of medical facilities and their suppliers to produce and order in accordance with relative demand rather than to stockpile has far-reaching consequences that become most apparent in times of acute need. The World Health Organization’s (WHO) recent elevation of COVID-19 infection to a pandemic represents just such an occasion. Due to ever more significant lack, proper masks have been widely unavailable to concerned members of the broader public for some time. Soon medical supplies may well be in short supply even for health care professionals whose work puts them in harm’s way. Despite increasing numbers of backorders, the medical supplies industry will be presented with the monumental challenge of adapting to the rising demand.
An equally present concern lay in the relative scarcity of external medical devices utilized in the treatment of COVID-19 and the array of respiratory ailments associated with it in its most acute manifestations, including viral pneumonia, bronchitis, respiratory infection, and acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS). In particular, the elderly and those with compromised immunity and chronic medical conditions are most susceptible to the development of such detrimental effects on the vital functioning of the respiratory system. If uncontested, such restriction of the respiratory pathways and receptors can prove fatal. As a result, patients suffering from acute symptoms of COVID-19 require the special treatment of a medical ventilator, an apparatus that delivers oxygen to the lungs and helps maintain healthy levels of oxygen in the blood. The mechanical ventilation provided by respiratory aid saves lives, but while its life-saving power is indispensable, it is also seldom needed – as seen, for instance, in emergency medicine or anesthesiology. As such, ventilators are in relatively short supply, even larger hospitals being in possession of no more than a few apparatus. If the rate of Coronavirus infection follows the predicted trajectory in the United States based on global models, those most affected by its assault on the respiratory system will far outnumber vacant breathing machines. Reports from Italy and other problematic zones have made plain the burden experienced by medical facilities and their health care workers faced with the dilemma of determining who gets to receive the appropriate respiratory aid. That some receive treatment implies that others do not.
The prospect of overburdened hospitals and the resulting scarcity of much-needed material resources serves as an ulterior motivating factor to the containment and slowing of COVID-19 transmission. In fact, statistical analysis has shown that those areas where the infection was most successfully stunted (esp. South Korea) also have corresponding lower rates of death on account of respiratory failure. One can hope that, in this case, lessons are learned from the mistakes and successes of others. The US health care system – for all of its strengths – is but a human institution with its own set of limitations that pose a challenge worth being addressed in these challenging times.
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