(Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
On Tuesday, Dr. Jeanne Noble devoted time between patient visits to hanging clear 2-gallon plastic bags at each of her colleagues’ workstations. Noble is a professor of emergency medicine and director of the UC-San Francisco medical center response to the novel coronavirus that has permeated California and reached into every U.S. state.
The bags were there to hold personal protective equipment — the masks, face shields, gowns and other items that health care providers rely on every day to protect themselves from the viruses shed by patients, largely through coughs and sneezes. In normal times, safety protocols would require these items be disposed of after one use. But just weeks into the COVID-19 pandemic, supplies of protective gear at UCSF are already so low that doctors and nurses are wiping down and reusing almost everything except gloves.
“It is not a foolproof strategy at all; we all realize the risk we are taking,” Noble said. But as supplies dwindle, she increasingly finds herself asking the folks in charge of infection control at the hospital if they can make changes to protocols. “As days go by, one regulation after the other goes out,” she said.
Noble is among the Bay Area physicians applauding the decision this week by seven Bay Area counties and multiple others across California to order residents to shelter in place for the foreseeable future, directives that are upending life for millions of people and shuttering schools and businesses across the state. Without swift and dramatic changes to curb transmission of the virus, hospital officials say, it is just a matter of time before their health systems are overwhelmed.
Interviews with California physicians on the front lines of COVID-19 offer a sobering portrait of a health care system preparing for the worst of a pandemic that could be months from peaking. In the Bay Area, the battle is being waged hospital by hospital, with wide variations in resources.
The tent where Noble tended to patients this week was set up to deal with a recent rise in people showing up with respiratory illness. Even without the coronavirus threat, UCSF’s emergency room is a busy one, and doctors frequently see patients in hallways and other spaces. But the current outbreak makes that close contact unsafe. So instead, everyone who comes to the hospital is being triaged. Most people with fever, cough or shortness of breath are diverted to the tent, which is heated and has negative air pressure to prevent the spread of infection. For now, the pace is manageable, but Noble fears what’s ahead.
Farther south, in Palo Alto, Stanford Medical Center was testing patients with respiratory problems in its parking garage. The private university hospital has more protective gear than the public one in San Francisco; a global scavenger hunt several weeks ago bolstered supplies, though Stanford, too, has adapted protocols to be more sparing with some items.
“We don’t have an unlimited supply,” said Dr. Andra Blomkalns, professor and chair of the Stanford School of Medicine’s Department of Emergency Medicine. “But at least we’re not looking at our last box.”
The entire country is short on protective gear, a result of both the surging demand for such equipment as the virus spreads and the implosion of supply chains from China, where much of the equipment is manufactured.
Noble believes some equipment will need to be made locally. “If the [federal] government doesn’t step in and force manufacturing of these products here now, we are going to run out,” she said.
Empty supply closets affect everyone who needs care, including heart attack victims and people in need of emergency surgery, said Dr. Vivian Reyes, president of the California chapter of the American College of Emergency Physicians and a practicing emergency physician in the Bay Area.
“I know it’s really hard for us Americans because we’re never told no,” she said of the shortfall of supplies. “But we’re not in normal times right now.”
And protective equipment isn’t the only thing in short supply.
Until a few days ago, UCSF had to rely on the San Francisco Department of Public Health for coronavirus testing, and a shortage of test kits meant clinicians could test only the most critically ill. The situation improved March 9, when the university started running tests created in its own lab. First, there were 40 tests a day. By Tuesday, there were 60 to 80. But a new shortage looms: The hospital has just 500 testing swabs left.
Stanford pathologist Benjamin Pinsky built an in-house test that has been approved for use by the federal Food and Drug Administration. Since March 3, Stanford has used it to test more than 500 patients, 12% of whom had tested positive as of Tuesday. The university has been running tests for other hospitals as well, including UCSF. It’s a dramatic improvement from a few weeks ago, when Stanford relied on its county lab.
Blomkalns saw a sick patient in mid-February, before the hospital had its own test kits, who had symptoms of COVID-19 but didn’t qualify for testing under the narrow federal guidelines in place at the time. He went home, only to return to the hospital after his condition deteriorated. This time, he was tested and it came back positive.
In Santa Clara County, home to Stanford, 175 people have tested positive for COVID-19 and six have died. Late last week, the medical center’s emergency department saw the highest number of patients in one day in its history. Blomkalns doubts it’s because there are more cases in her area. “If you don’t test, you don’t have any cases,” she said.
Blomkalns worries about staffing shortages as health care workers are inevitably exposed to the virus. As of Tuesday, one doctor in the Stanford ER had tested positive. At UCSF, six health care providers had.
Not all Bay Area hospitals are seeing a flood of patients. In fact, some have fewer patients than usual, as they have canceled elective surgeries in anticipation of a COVID-19 surge.
The doctors treating COVID-19 patients say nearly all who test positive have a cough. They complain of fatigue, body aches, headaches, runny noses and sore throats. While most people are well enough to recover at home, those who get critically ill tend to do so in their second week of symptoms, and can deteriorate very quickly, several doctors noted. “We are recommending that patients get intubated a little earlier than they might otherwise,” said Reyes.
In general, officials are asking people who have mild cases of COVID-19 to treat their symptoms at home, as they would a cold or flu, and refrain from seeking care at hospitals. People experiencing shortness of breath, however, should definitely go to the emergency room, said Blomkalns.
For children, the criteria may be a bit different. Shortness of breath should trigger a visit, as should altered mental state, excessive irritability, or an inability to eat or drink, said Dr. Nicolaus Glomb, a pediatric emergency care physician at UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital.
Gov. Gavin Newsom said Tuesday that rough projections suggest the state could need anywhere from 4,000 to 20,000 additional beds to treat patients with serious cases of COVID-19.
The testing problems worry Noble, as do the equipment shortages, but not nearly as much as the potential for a lot of sick people. “I’m mostly worried about a tsunami of very ill patients that we’re not equipped to take care of,” said Noble.
Blomkalns isn’t sure whether or when Stanford might exceed capacity, saying the caseload trajectory may hinge on how aggressively state and national authorities move to cut off routes of community transmission. “It all depends on what happens in the coming weeks and days,” she said. “We know what we need to do, and we’re doing the job.”
KHN Senior Correspondents JoNel Aleccia and Jenny Gold contributed to this report.