The novel coronavirus spreads exponentially. A single case, left unchecked, can become thousands in only weeks.

When it comes to the response to the outbreak, mistakes work the same way. They compound each other, quickly turning what seemed to be a manageable crisis into one that risks spiraling out of our control.

That’s the danger presented by the lack of ventilators, testing supplies and personal protective equipment available nationwide. Health care workers for weeks have been warning that we’ll pay a heavy cost for the shortages, and with each day that the federal government does not respond adequately to their pleas, the cost we will pay in the near future shoots upward.

HEALTH WORKERS IN DANGER

Just look at the situation in Maine’s long-term care facilities. Dr. Jabbar Fazeli, spokesman for the Maine Medical Directors Association, told the Press Herald this week that few coronavirus tests have been conducted at the state’s 93 nursing homes and 200-plus assisted-living facilities. When tests have been conducted, it has sometimes taken a week or more for results.

Both the lack of tests and the delay in results are caused by a shortage of testing supplies, according to Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention. As of Wednesday, said Dr. Shah, about 1,300 tests statewide were waiting to be processed, in addition to the 3,300 or so already completed.

While waiting for test results, health care workers must assume that the patient will test positive, and must use scarce masks, gloves and other protective equipment for each interaction.

That’s just one more strain on already-strained supplies – it is expected, for example, that the U.S. this year will use four times more of the most protective masks than in a typical year. The shortage means some, perhaps many, health care workers will be left to treat patients without proper protection, putting them in danger.

Health care workers are already vulnerable to the disease. Each time one is infected, it pulls a trained worker from the frontlines and lowers the health care system’s capacity to provide treatment, bringing it to a crisis point quicker than most people realize.

The same can be said of the lack of ventilators, which in a pandemic can go from keeping hospital officials up at night to causing deaths suddenly as severe cases spike.

GOVERNMENT MUST USE LEVERAGE

This is where the federal government has to flex its muscle. The Trump administration cannot delay any longer in requiring companies to manufacture these products. It needs to take control of the supply chain, and get scarce materials where they are needed most.

Instead, the president is asking for voluntary help. Some businesses and individuals have responded wholeheartedly, but his administration appears to have little handle on who is doing what, and there is no indication it will be enough.

Much was made when Apple announced it had sourced 10 million high-quality masks from its supply chain; on Sunday alone, factories in Taiwan made more than 12 million of them.

President Trump is leaving it to states to procure their own supplies, which is driving up prices and forcing them to compete with each other, and with foreign governments that have coordinated their national response.

It is not nearly enough, and it is going to get Americans killed. Officials in New York say they will need 30,000 ventilators within the next few weeks; the federal government has promised only 4,000 more.

New York City is becoming the outbreak’s worldwide epicenter. Los Angeles and Florida are turning into hot spots. Others will emerge in the coming weeks, with regions going from unconcerning to critical before our eyes. Cases will likely continue to surge in Maine, where more than half of residents are vulnerable to severe illness.

The Trump administration should have began stockpiling supplies more than two months ago. Failing that, it should have started in the last few weeks to marshal all the resources of the federal government toward production.

With each day the administration fails to do that, the problem is compounded. The president should not wait any longer.

 

 

 


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