As Hospitalizations Surge, U.S. Health Care Faces Its Biggest 'Stress Test' Yet : Shots - Health News Deaths from COVID-19 have jumped nearly 40% this week, and hospitals around the country are straining under their patient load. Here's what happened in the first week after Thanksgiving.
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'Extraordinary Acceleration': Takeaways From The Pandemic Last Week

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'Extraordinary Acceleration': Takeaways From The Pandemic Last Week

'Extraordinary Acceleration': Takeaways From The Pandemic Last Week

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The cold-weather surge in coronavirus cases that public health officials have been warning about for months is here. How bad is it? Well, the U.S. has just hit new record highs on all three key measures - new infections, number of Americans hospitalized and deaths. Dr. Bruce Siegel represents safety net hospitals across the country.

BRUCE SIEGEL: This is going to be the biggest stress test of American health care in history. It is across the country. It is not just one region.

SHAPIRO: Health reporter Will Stone joins us to discuss where these trend lines are leading and what it will mean for the U.S. health care system. Hi, Will.

WILL STONE, BYLINE: Hello.

SHAPIRO: December is already looking bad. Is this because of the travel that we saw over Thanksgiving?

STONE: Actually, what's so disturbing is that it's still too soon to even see the full impact of Thanksgiving travel and family gatherings. Experts say we are going to see that spike in cases, but it's probably going to start showing up next week. But let's be clear. Cases were climbing very quickly before Thanksgiving. So those Thanksgiving numbers, when they do show up, will be a wave on top of an even bigger wave of infections that's already happening. And experts are really scared because that Thanksgiving surge will hit hospitals right around Christmas. Here's Dr. Bruce Siegel, who we already heard from. He represents hundreds of safety net hospitals.

SIEGEL: You have that surge going into the third week of December mounting, mounting, mounting. And then you have Christmas. And we are all really worried you'll see another event. With millions of people being exposed over the Christmas holidays, January could be a very dark month.

SHAPIRO: So, Will, it sounds like we're not even close to the peak here, but hospitals and health care workers are already so overextended. How are they preparing for what's to come?

STONE: Yeah. Hospitals are in trouble. There are already more than 100,000 Americans hospitalized with COVID right now. That's close to double what it was just a month ago. Hospitals in the Midwest have been hammered for months, but now it's hospitals all over the U.S. In the South, hospitals have almost as many patients as they did during the summer. Nurses and doctors are already exhausted, and administrators can't find backup for help. So hospitals are doing all they can to stretch staff and supplies. In the Northeast, states like Rhode Island and Massachusetts are putting up overflow field hospitals. In New Mexico, the governor is talking about hospitals having to ration care because they're so full. And California is reimposing very strict lockdowns in many places because its ICUs could be maxed out by Christmas.

SHAPIRO: All right. So record infections, record hospitalizations and, as we said, also record deaths - tell us more about those numbers and who the people are who are dying right now.

STONE: Yeah. In just two weeks, deaths have increased about 50% on average. And remember; these are people who probably got sick before Thanksgiving. During the last peak over the summer, many more younger adults were getting infected, so even though cases were hitting highs, the deaths weren't as bad. But experts are telling me that we can't count on that anymore. Dr. Jennifer Nuzzo is an epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins, and here's how she puts it.

JENNIFER NUZZO: Eventually, the virus finds its way into the groups that are statistically more likely to become hospitalized and to die. When that does happen, you will see the deaths start to climb. And unfortunately, that's what we seem to be seeing right now.

STONE: And just look at long-term care facilities like nursing homes. These have some of the most vulnerable people. And according to the COVID Tracking Project, more than a third of all COVID deaths are now linked to long-term care. So that's more than 100,000 COVID deaths that can be traced to these facilities either among residents or workers. And they're on the list to be first in line to get a vaccine, but it could be February or March before that even happens.

SHAPIRO: That's Will Stone covering the pandemic from his base in Seattle. Thank you, Will.

STONE: Thank you.

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