Experts say Biden's plan to help hospitals deal with COVID surge isn't enough
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Yesterday, President Biden laid out his plan to deal with the winter surge of the omicron variant. Part of it is to beef up rapid testing and to make it easier to get vaccinated. Another part is to help the nation's hospitals cope with the strain of more COVID-19 patients. NPR's Will Stone reports on whether the plan goes far enough
WILL STONE, BYLINE: Staff, space and stuff. Those are the three ingredients for expanding hospital capacity in the face of a COVID surge, and Biden's plan tries to tackle all of them. On staffing, by far the most pressing issue, the Pentagon is sending 1,000 medics, doctors and nurses to strapped hospitals around the U.S.
SHEREEF ELNAHAL: We hope and anticipate that we'll be able to benefit.
STONE: That's Dr. Shereef Elnahal at University Hospital in New Jersey. Elnahal says their staffing crisis is getting worse by the day.
ELNAHAL: Our employees out due to COVID - that count has doubled every week for the last three weeks. And the staffing assistance that the president is offering couldn't come at a better time.
STONE: But will this backup be enough? Dr. Bruce Siegel says, not really.
BRUCE SIEGEL: Our hospitals are going to need a lot more support.
STONE: Siegel is head of America's Essential Hospitals, a group that represents public hospitals in the U.S.
SIEGEL: We have 5,000 hospitals in this country, so a thousand helps. Any number will help, but it's not going to be a game changer.
STONE: When it comes to creating more space, the president's directing FEMA, the federal agency that responds to disasters like hurricanes, to help states add more beds. And on stuff, Biden's promising hundreds of millions of N95 masks and other personal protective equipment can be shipped from the national stockpile at a moment's notice. Dr. Greg Martin is president of the Society of Critical Care Medicine. He says having space and stuff isn't as much of an issue for hospitals, but the plan shows Biden's being proactive.
GREG MARTIN: I would give them high marks for accounting for the major things that need to be considered when you're trying to expand clinical patient services. But at the end of the day, until that's all coming together, you don't know if it's going to work.
STONE: This is the tricky behind-the-scenes work during a COVID surge. How do you coordinate when hospitals are being inundated all at once?
MAHSHID ABIR: My fear is that we're going to have a lot of outbreaks concurrently in many places.
STONE: Dr. Mahshid Abir, a researcher at the University of Michigan and the RAND Corporation.
ABIR: There's just not going to be enough capacity on the part of the federal government. This is - it's not going to be possible. So we have to get a lot smarter about how we use what we have.
STONE: That could mean requiring all hospitals in a region of the country to share resources. In Biden's plan, he's tapped FEMA to help states get ready for winter surges and to move patients around with ambulance crews. Dr. David Marcozzi is chief clinical officer for the University of Maryland Medical Center.
DAVID MARCOZZI: We are in this fight right now. You have to bring this to scale and quickly.
STONE: Marcozzi says FEMA has already helped Baltimore with its COVID surge, and a more robust federal response is welcome. He's just concerned it won't reach enough of the country fast enough.
MARCOZZI: I think we need to multiply that by a significant number to really affect our national response to this pandemic.
STONE: It's possible omicron won't overwhelm hospitals to the same extent as last winter. But with about 70,000 patients hospitalized for COVID-19 right now, the U.S. needs to plan like it will.
Will Stone, NPR News.
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