COVID-19 hit America like a stroke—sudden, unexpected, and devastating. And like a stroke, the damage can be permanent. However, the sooner we intervene, the greater the chance to return to health.
Among America’s first responders, medical professionals and health care workers have been heroes in the early fight against this scourge. They can—and should be—the leaders in returning our country to economic health.
That means needing to put all of America’s large and diverse health care delivery systems back to work.
America’s hospitals are not overwhelmed by COVID-19 patients. That’s a major misconception. Rather, there are about 200 to 300 hospitals in hot spots like New York, Illinois, or Louisiana that are taking care of an enormous number of patients.
The administrators, physicians, and staffs of these hospitals are doing incredible work under very difficult circumstances, and they deserve a great deal of thanks for the work that they are doing.
But there are approximately 5,600 other hospitals in the United States that have empty beds, and their employees are losing their jobs. They are facing the worst rate of job loss in 30 years.
The reason: In response to COVID-19, hospitals have refrained from performing any services that were not emergencies to make sure those patients with COVID-19 had intensive care unit beds and necessary supplies.
Beyond any impact on Americans’ health, stopping the performance of these medical services has been a costly decision. Nationwide, hospitals, medical offices, and outpatient services are losing hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue daily.
Most hospitals draw about 50% of their entire revenues from outpatient services, and those have been curtailed almost entirely.
Rural hospitals are hurting even more. Virtually none of them are in hot spots for COVID-19, yet all of them have stopped non-emergency services.
Before the onset of this coronavirus, about 1 in 4 rural hospitals faced a risk of closure, and now, of course, these hospitals are at even greater risk.
In short, COVID-19 is devastating American hospitals. For the majority of them, however, it’s not because of the number of infected patients they are seeing, but rather because of the number of patients they are not seeing.
As a doctor, I find this profoundly worrisome. It’s not only that we may lose many of our hospitals and specialty practices, but also that we may also lose our patients.
Consider the personal danger to patients. What are we missing now that we are not doing mammograms? What is the threat posed to patients whose surgery is delayed for something we think is benign, but may not be?
The decreased number of emergency department visits being reported across the country is an even greater reason for concern.
In our small town of Carrollton, Georgia, we have a single hospital system for the entire county. Based on a study of total monthly emergency room visits, we found a 47% decrease compared with last year.
Does that mean that people with heart attacks or small strokes or diabetic emergencies are staying home? What is happening to them?
As a doctor, I want my hospital to reopen. For the benefit of our patients, we need it to reopen.
While controlling this coronavirus, the nation must also begin to recover our economic life.
Health care is a logical place to restart the engine of full employment. There are three good reasons for that.
First, health care is a large and growing sector of the American economy. It amounts to approximately 18% of America’s gross domestic product and employs roughly 1 out of 8 Americans. Getting it back to full strength will have a huge impact.
Second, in coping with this pandemic, the health care workforce is highly skilled, perhaps more so than in any other sector of the American economy. Health care workers understand how to disinfect and thus protect against disease spread. It is what they do.
In battling this pandemic, they have been doing an exceptional job, as evidenced by the comparatively low death rate in this country.
Finally, we have made real progress in the supply chains for tests and gloves and respirators. Also, we now have a better—though incomplete—understanding of this disease and how to control it.
Medical professionals and health care workers generally have stepped up and have done an excellent job. As first responders, they have been America’s vital and necessary front-line fighters in battling COVID-19. They are proven and trusted leaders, and we should also fully deploy them in our effort to secure our nation’s economic recovery.
Reopen American health care now—all of it.