Washington (AFP) - Hospitals across the United States will struggle to cope with the influx of coronavirus patients if the disease continues to spread rapidly, according to a new analysis by researchers at Harvard.
The team at the Harvard Global Health Institute modeled nine potential projections and found that in all but two, the vast majority of intensive care units nationwide would be overwhelmed.
A similar situation in Italy, the country second hardest hit from the virus after China, has led to health care workers being forced to make difficult decisions about who has access to ventilators, vital in saving people experiencing lung failure.
How many people eventually get infected is a big question mark -- China has reported 80,000 cases, but a new paper in Science this week suggested the true figure could have been far higher, based on transmission between people with mild or no symptoms.
But the projections make clear that whatever the figure may be, the best shot at saving lives lies in slowing down the rate of new infections -- what public health experts keep referring to as "flattening the curve."
Thomas Tsai, an associate professor at Harvard who was part of the team leading the research, told AFP on Wednesday it was essential for the US to continue to escalate its containment measures.
"That's important, because that's going to be the time that the hospitals need in order to get the supplies, in terms of personal protective equipment, as well as canceling elective surgical operations to free up those beds," he said.
Tsai said he was "cautiously optimistic" given the large scale interventions that were beginning to occur -- such as "shelter in place" orders in San Francisco and multiple states now asking their populations to engage in social distancing.
"Regardless of what the official pronouncements are, every individual needs to take personal responsibility, because they are likely a piece of that chain of transmission to their own family members, loved ones and co-workers," he added.
The researchers' best-case scenario is that just 20 percent of the adult US population will be infected -- or around 50 million people, across 18 months.
In this projection, most hospitals nationwide would have enough ICU units to cope if they reduced occupancy rates in existing ICU beds treating non COVID-19 patients by 50 percent.
- Protective gear shortages -
The worst projection sees 60 percent of the adult population or 150 million people infected in just six months, even if all the ICU beds described above were made available.
In this scenario the vast majority of the country would be five times under the required capacity -- a gap that would be hard to fill even with additional measures like building military field hospitals.
The US so far has just over 7,300 cases and 115 deaths, according to a Johns Hopkins University tracker.
Tsai, who works as a general surgeon at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston, said that in addition to reducing infection rates and bulking up capacity, it was vital that health care workers get the personal protective gear they needed.
"This morning I'm hearing from my hospital that we've reached out to construction companies for donations and respirators. People are on social media asking for friends and families to donate," he said.
The White House announced on Monday it was invoking the Defense Production Act, signed in 1950 during the Korean War, allowing the government to expand production of the gear.