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Experts are concerned we could run out of hospital beds as COVID-19 spreads. Getty Images
  • When Washington state authorities sent an urgent request for 233,000 respirators and 200,000 surgical masks to be released from the federal stockpile, they received less than half the amount they requested.
  • According to the most recent figures, the United States has roughly three hospital beds for every 1,000 people.
  • Typically, about 68 percent of them are occupied, leaving approximately 300,000 beds available nationwide.

On March 11, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared COVID-19, the disease that results from the novel coronavirus, a worldwide pandemic.

In just a few short days, major changes have come to countries across the world.

Is the U.S. health system ready to handle possibly millions of patients, many of which may require lifesaving assistance?

How important is it to use social distancing to reduce the risk of infection?

Here’s what we know.

The federal government’s Strategic National Stockpile is a repository of drugs and supplies to be deployed for major public health emergencies, such as the current COVID-19 outbreak.

It’s the nation’s largest supply of potentially lifesaving pharmaceuticals and medical supplies for use during a health emergency severe enough to cause local supplies to run out.

However, there are indications that even this isn’t enough to handle the nationwide demand for supplies if this virus can’t be contained.

When Washington state authorities sent an urgent request for 233,000 respirators and 200,000 surgical masks to be released from the stockpile, they were told they’d receive less than half the amount they requested.

They received only 93,600 N95 respirators and 100,200 surgical masks, according to The Washington Post.

“They did not tell us the reason for why they were fulfilling half the request,” Washington state’s liaison to the federal government, Casey Katims, told the Post.

“A face mask shortage is problematic for healthcare workers who might be close to those who are infected, and to those individuals who are already sick. They are the people who most need masks during this coronavirus outbreak,” Dr. Richard Seidman, chief medical officer of L.A. Care Health Plan, the largest publicly operated health plan in the United States, told Healthline.

As global supply chains are disrupted due to spread of the virus and the number of cases climbs, health authorities are hunting for medical supplies and have called on employees to ration, according to The Seattle Times.

Seidman emphasizes that because of that shortage, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has temporarily revised recommendations.

Those recommendations now say different types of masks that are looser can be used for those individuals who have a novel coronavirus infection, at least until they can get more of the N95 respirators.

According to the most recent figures, the United States has roughly three hospital beds for every 1,000 people. Typically, about 68 percent of them are occupied, leaving approximately 300,000 beds available nationwide.

The U.S. population also has high rates of chronic conditions, such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease, which are associated with more severe cases of COVID-19.

“Conditions that raise the risk can include lung disease, cancer, heart disease, stroke, renal disease, liver disease, diabetes, and immunocompromising conditions,” said Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Alex Azar in a statement.

Current figures place the total U.S. population at 329 million people.

Considering the available beds and protective gear, there may be potentially catastrophic shortages of healthcare resources as we confront this crisis.

A New York Times report found that a CDC estimate of COVID-19 cases could mean 2.4 to 21 million Americans may need to be hospitalized due to the virus.

Given the limitations of our healthcare system, the most important thing we can all do to avoid infection is by practicing “social distancing.”

“Social distancing means staying out of congregate settings or any space where people gather and spend a good deal of time together. It also means avoiding mass gatherings,” Seidman said.

He explains this could be done by avoiding anything from a work meeting with 20 people in a conference room and Sunday church services to a big sporting or musical event.

It’s also important to stay up to date on the situation, as recommendations can change as health officials find out more about the virus.

“The CDC now says social distancing of approximately 6 feet is preferable. In the past, 3 feet had been advised,” Seidman said.

Pregnant women and those caring for newborns are another group that needs to take particular care regarding the novel coronavirus, especially if the mother has tested positive for the virus.

“To reduce the risk of transmission from mother to newborn, facilities need to consider separating mother from the baby until the mothers transmission–based precautions are no longer a risk,” said Dr. Kecia Gaither, double board certified in OB-GYN and maternal fetal medicine and director of perinatal services at NYC Health + Hospitals/Lincoln.

Gaither also advises that pregnant women should consider themselves in the “immunocompromised group” and be especially cautious because they have physiologic changes that lower their immunity and may increase their risk for infection.

She points out case reports from China that show the virus may have adverse effects on newborns, causing a likelihood of preterm delivery, fetal distress, respiratory distress, low platelet count, and abnormal liver function tests.

However, it’s currently unclear whether the novel coronavirus can actually cross through the placenta to infect a fetus, according to a practice advisory from the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG).

The current COVID-19 pandemic means a possible shortage of health facilities and protective gear, like face masks.

Social distancing is one way we can significantly reduce our risk for infection and spare critical resources for those who do contract the virus.

The CDC has revised social distancing to mean maintaining at least 6 feet between yourself and others outside your household.

In case of infection, experts emphasize that pregnant women should consider themselves immunocompromised and their unborn children at risk for complications.

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