First the good news; as yet, the United States has only a few isolated cases of the coronavirus, code-named COVID-19.
Now the bad news; a lack of resources is leaving health officials in the dark about whether the virus is actually spreading. Emergency room (ER) doctors say they currently lack the resources to deal with a major outbreak.
Test kits used to determine whether someone has COVID-19 or simply a cold are in short supply. California Governor Gavin Newsom told reporters at a news conference Thursday that the state only has 200 test kits on hand, a situation he called “simply inadequate.”
“Everybody in this country is rightfully anxious about this moment,” the governor said. “I think they should know we are meeting this moment with the kind of urgency that is necessary and I don’t want to overextend the anxiety.”
Consumers in California may be on edge because one resident of the state is the first patient in the country to have contracted COVID-19 from “unknown origin,” meaning the patient had not traveled to China or had known contact with anyone who had been diagnosed.
Taking issue with CDC policy
Other health experts point to policy directives from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) for what they say is a lack of timely testing. Dr. Michael Mina of the Harvard School of Public Health says the CDC has mandated all testing be conducted centrally.
“The frustrating thing, I think, for people who are trying to perform tests for their patients is we just don’t have the capacity in the United States and the local laboratories that would normally be testing have been banned from being able to do that because of the declaration of a public health emergency by the CDC,” he told CNBC.
Meanwhile, a professional group representing hospital ER doctors is asking Congress to approve emergency supplemental appropriations to ensure the system has the resources necessary to address an outbreak.
"More can and should be done to minimize the risk of coronavirus in the United States," said Dr. William Jaquis, president of the American College of Emergency Physicians (ACEP). "It is critical that we empower our nation's emergency care teams and public health experts to protect millions of people and respond quickly and effectively to this virus."
Request for additional funding
ACEP and the Emergency Nurses Association (ENA) have sent a request to the House Appropriations Committee asking for an increase in funding for health emergency preparedness, noting that COVID-19 patients will likely enter the healthcare system through an ER.
"As the safety net for our communities, emergency departments across the country are filled with patients who have nowhere else to go for their health care needs,” Jaquis said.
He added that ERs around the country are already dealing with what he called a challenging flu season.