The worst-case scenario for the outbreak in the United States is if there are sudden spikes in infections among many communities across the country. A spike could overwhelm our health care system.
“That’s one of the most dangerous things about this,” Ron Klain, who led the response to the 2014 Ebola epidemic under the Obama administration, said in February. “What if all of a sudden 10,000 sick people needed hospitalization in a major city? There’s no 10,000 extra beds sitting around someplace.”
Hospitals are already worried about equipment shortages. And as sick people rush into the hospital system, they could infect health care workers — as well as other vulnerable patients, particularly the elderly — leaving the system in even more dire straits.
“We saw in Wuhan 1,000 health care providers get sick and we had at least 15 percent severely ill and in ICUs,” Peter Hotez, a vaccine expert with the Baylor College of Medicine, testified before a House committee Thursday. “And that is very dangerous, because not only do you subtract those people out of the health care workforce, but the demoralizing effect of colleagues taking care of colleagues … the whole thing can fall apart if that starts to happen.”
But this nightmare scenario isn’t inevitable.
“If we slow it so that infections happen over 10 or 12 months instead of over one month, that’s going to make a big difference as far as how many people seriously infected, how many people may end up hospitalized, and how many they end up dying,” Smith says. “We talk about it as ‘flattening the epidemic curve’ — so that it’s not a big, sudden peak in cases, but it’s a more moderate plateau over time.”
And that’s the current goal: to flatten the curve.