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‘I fear the hospital system is going to break’ from the stress of new covid cases: doctor

Dr. Anand Swaminathan, Emergency Medicine Physician in New Jersey, joins Yahoo Finance’s Zack Guzman and Akiko Fujita to discuss his thoughts and the new information on the state of the coronavirus pandemic in the United States.

Video Transcript

AKIKO FUJITA: More than 220,000 new cases of the coronavirus reported here in the US on Wednesday with hospitalizations hitting a new record of 125,000 patients. Meanwhile, health officials here in California are reporting that highly infectious UK variant of the virus has now been detected in the state.

Let's bring in Dr. Anand Swaminathan. He's an emergency medicine physician in New Jersey. Doctor, it's good to talk to you today. This month has just really been a brutal one from ICUs across the country. As we count down to the new year, give me a pulse check of what you are seeing on the ground there and whether things have leveled off from the highs we saw earlier in the month.

ANAND SWAMINATHAN: Yeah, the numbers have been so high that I think we lose sight of what these numbers actually mean. 125,000 is a lot of hospitalizations, but when we're looking across the country, when I talk to my colleagues in other places, I hear the same thing over and over again. The hospital's full. We're at 140% capacity. We've turned the gift shop, the chapel into spaces for patients because we don't have anywhere else to put patients.

I talked to a number of people at large hospitals, county hospital systems where they're running out of oxygen. They're running out of face masks. They're running out of infusion pumps. And none of this even is talking about the number of health-care workers that we're losing as well because they're falling ill and they're having to stay home, and that really compromises how we take care of patients.

We've been really lauding the fact that our mortality rate from coronavirus is low. It's around 1% or 2%, but that's going to change. We're going to see that shift in the next two months because as nurses get strapped, as they are, instead of taking care of two patients for an ICU nurse or six or seven patients for a floor nurse, they're going to be taking care of five patients in the ICU. They're going to be taking care of 10 patients on the floors, 10 patients per nurse in the emergency department, and that compromises the good supportive care that those patients need.

So we're going to see mortality spike as we see hospitalizations spike. And I know that a lot of experts have been saying it. It's been rough the last month. The next two months are going to be worse, especially when we see what happens-- what happens with the recent holidays and how that causes surges across the country. And the hospital system, it's already bent as much as it can, and I fear that the hospital system is going to break under the weight of all of these cases.

ZACK GUZMAN: And, Doctor, I suppose it's worth stressing too that was the expectation even before we saw the discovery of this new strain that's supposedly 71% more spreadable. And we talk about cases in Colorado and California, but those are the documented cases. In the Colorado case, that man had not traveled. So, I mean, when you think about how this may have already spread around the US and the CDC warning that that new strain will stress hospital staff even further, I mean, what does that say? Because obviously you can't lock down 71% more than what you're already doing, what we're seeing in place in California. So how does that maybe add to the risks now?

ANAND SWAMINATHAN: And this variant has probably been around for a while, probably been around for a couple of months in the US. We haven't done a very good job of sequencing and tracking these variants. Now we are trying to, and that's why we're finding a couple of cases, but it's probably been around for a little while.

And we can do more. That's the honest truth. The way to stop this variant from spreading is the same way to stop COVID from spreading in general, which is good public-health measures. It means that everybody has to wear a mask. We have to be physically distancing. We have to be hand washing. We have to avoid gatherings and not just large indoor gatherings, not just large outdoor gatherings but small indoor gatherings. The living-room spread, this is the new super spreader. One person in a small group indoors that gets this can spread it to a lot of other people.

And what we see with the numbers going up with this variant, whichever variant it is, is that we have to place personal freedom behind personal responsibility. Personal freedom is great to talk about, but it has to come with personal responsibility. We have to understand that one person gets this, can spread it to a lot of other people. We are very interconnected. It means that everybody has to do their part.

So I actually think we can. We can ratchet up those public-health measures more. And in addition to that, when it's your turn to get the vaccine, we need to make sure that we do that too.

AKIKO FUJITA: And, Doctor, you expressed concerns about doctors falling ill, doctors and nurses. Of course, health-care workers were at the front of the line on the vaccine, but we've heard reports from across the country about vaccines going unused, not being stored properly in, for example, senior-care centers. A lot of workers not wanting to get the vaccine as well. What's been your experience with that, and what specifically do you think is the biggest hurdle, at least in this first phase, in getting those who need the vaccine inoculated?

ANAND SWAMINATHAN: It was really heartwarming to see in my hospital when the vaccine was released, we had lines wrapping around the hospital, health-care workers waiting to get these, and we should be seeing the same thing across the country. The problem is that we have lost a lot of our faith and our trust in our health-care professionals, in our leadership, and we need to resume that or regenerate that trust in the FDA, the CDC, in medical experts.

From what we know, the best evidence tells us these vaccines are extremely safe. Yes, there are going to be some side effects, but the vast majority of them are very minor. There are very few really severe adverse events. And so it's important for health-care workers to model that behavior of we trust the experts, we believe in this vaccine, and to go and get it.

But I think the hurdles are the amount of misinformation that's out there. So what I really want to stress to people is to make sure that you're getting your information from reliable resources. And the next administration is going to have a big uphill battle in regenerating that trust in the FDA and in the CDC and in the medical health professionals.

So we have to get out there and spread the same message over and over again. I got vaccinated. I'm actually up for my second vaccine next week, so the second in that two-part series with the Pfizer vaccine. And I had really no side effects at all. I went to work the next day.

And that's what we need to be talking about. The vast majority of us are completely fine getting the vaccine. We're out in front, and it gives us the security that we can go to work. We can be a little bit more protected. It doesn't change the amount of PPE that we are using because we're still trying to protect each other and our patients, but then we can be there to take care of our patients.

ZACK GUZMAN: It's an important point to stress, and I know it's been a stressful year for all of you in the medical community. Appreciate you taking the time to chat with us today and bring us that. Dr. Anand Swaminathan, thanks again, and happy New Year.