U.S. hospitals brace for system strain due to COVID-19

U.S. hospitals are setting up circus-like triage tents, calling doctors out of retirement, guarding their supplies of face masks and making plans to cancel elective surgery as they brace for an expected onslaught of coronavirus patients.

Depending on how bad the crisis gets, the sick could find themselves waiting on stretchers in emergency room hallways for hospital beds to open up, or could be required to share rooms with others infected. Some doctors fear hospitals could become so overwhelmed that they could be forced to ration medical care.

“This is going to be a fairly tremendous strain on our health system,” warned Dr. William Jaquis, president of the American College of Emergency Physicians.

The United States is still facing an active flu season, and many hospitals are already running at capacity caring for those patients. The new virus will only add to that burden, said Dr. Bruce Ribner an infectious-disease specialist at Emory University’s medical school.

Government health authorities are taking emergency steps to waive certain laws and regulations to help hospitals deal with the crisis. Hospitals, too, are getting ready.

To keep suspected coronavirus patients from mingling with others in the ER, the Central Maine Medical Center in Lewiston, Maine, set up a tent in the parking lot where people with respiratory symptoms are diverted for testing. Lexington Medical Center in West Columbia, South Carolina, did the same outside its emergency room.

In Seattle, hit by the nation’s biggest cluster of coronavirus deaths, most of them at a suburban nursing home, UW Medicine set up drive-thru testing in a hospital parking garage and has screened hundreds of staff members, faculty and trainees, with nurses reaching through car windows and using swabs to collect specimens from people’s nostrils. Drive-thru testing is expected to be offered to patients as soon as Monday.

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