Officials with the Center for Disease Control (CDC) and the World Health Organization have sounded an alarm about COVID-19, a virus that comes with a fever, cough, and shortness of breath.

Normally these seemingly benign symptoms don’t cause an entire nation to shut down but it has. So here’s why COVID-19 has become such a big deal.

Health officials have voiced concerns that the spread of the virus could mean larger numbers of people will need more medical care and public health services. But they also know the United States just doesn’t have the capacity to deal with that kind of volume of patient care.

Read: 5 things to know about COVID-19

Hospitals not equipped to handle COVID-19 cases

According to a story by ProPublica, somewhere between 20 and 60 percent of adults will contract the virus and about a fifth of the people who get COVID-19 will need to be hospitalized.

In most scenarios, “vast communities in America are not prepared to take care of the COVID-19 patients showing up,” said Dr. Ashish Jha, director of the Harvard Global Health Institute, who led a team of researchers that developed the analysis.

The article highlighted that the best-case scenario would be that the cases of coronavirus spread out over 18 months, but that would mean American hospital beds would be about 95 percent full. This, however, assumes that area hospitals don’t free up beds that are already occupied or add more beds.

According to the article:

“But in most other scenarios where the virus spreads faster or infects more people, hospitals would quickly fill their available beds with patients, and they would be forced to either expand capacity, limit elective surgeries and other non-necessary treatments, or make life-and-death decisions about care, similar to what has happened in the worst-hit regions of Italy, where some doctors have received guidance to only treat patients ‘deemed worthy of intensive care.'”

So it’s not as much about a high percentage of people getting the disease and dying as it is having a large number of people getting sick at the same time, needing resources that aren’t available and then dying.

The sick and the sickest

Nancy Messonnier, director of CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, said in a teleconference on Thursday that risk can be viewed in two ways: getting sick and getting “very sick or dying from illness with the virus.”

The virus spreads easily. But people don’t have an immunity against the virus because it’s new. With that said, most people will experience mild symptoms but some will have severe symptoms. Without social distancing, however, the number of people getting sick could spike.

“Based on this, it’s fair to say that as the trajectory of the outbreak continues, many people in the United States will at some point in time either this year or next, be exposed to this virus,” Messonnier said. “And there’s a good chance many will become sick.  But again, based on what we know about this virus, we do not expect most people to develop serious illness,”  

Of the 70,000 COVID-19 cases reported in China, about 80 percent of those people experienced mild symptoms. The rest developed serious illnesses. The disease affects older adults disproportionately than younger people. Those who are age 60 or older have an increased risk of getting the disease. The population that gets hit the hardest, people older than 80-years-old and those with certain illnesses.

“People with serious underlying health conditions also are more likely to develop serious outcomes including death,” Messonnier said.  “The people who are at greatest risk are those older and who also have serious long-term health conditions like diabetes, heart disease, or lung disease.”

The number of people getting tested in Wisconsin is growing. As of Thursday, over 2,300 people have been tested for COVID-19 and 155 tested postive, a 46 percent increase in one day.

Testing, testing, testing

So it’s important to get tested if you think you have the virus so that those people that have been exposed can take steps to isolate themselves. But the cumulative testing capacity for the 78 state and local public health labs across the United States is 75,000. With that said, a number of test kits will become commercially available and that number is expected to much larger.

“Our expectation within the next couple weeks is more and more commercial entities become – come onboard is the majority of the available testing will actually be from the commercial sector,” Messonnier said.

Richard A. Bright, director of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA) said Americans need to have access to a rapid diagnostic test.

“The sooner clinicians, patients, and public health officials know whether someone is infected with the novel coronavirus, the sooner they can take action to mitigate the spread of COVID-19,” Bright said. “Rapid diagnostic tests are critical in this public health response. We are working with the private sector at an urgent pace to make these tests available on as many diagnostic platforms as we can in the coming weeks.”

 As hospitals and clinics ramp up in Wisconsin, state officials noted capacity issues with lab testing and a shortage in the supply of ingredients for the tests.

Healthcare officials were notified Tuesday that testing should be done in the clinic setting or outpatient setting, then sent out for testing to two testing sites: the Wisconsin State Laboratory of Hygiene and the Milwaukee Health Department Laboratory. However, a memo from Ryan Westergaard, chief medical officer, and state epidemiologist for communicable diseases noted capacity issues.

The memo noted that while both labs have “significantly increased their capacity” the number of specimens received this week “far exceeded their daily capacity” as the testing site received 1,800 samples since Monday.

The capacity of processing tests at both labs: 550.

“With the increased number of cases of COVID-19 reported nationally and the growing likelihood of widespread community transmission in all areas of the country, the number of people requiring testing for COVID-19 is increasing significantly,” Westergaard said. “Priority should, therefore, be given to the testing of specimens from patients for whom a timely diagnosis is most urgent.”

Mitigating the spread of COVID-19

One of the ways to combat that is for people to use telehealth visits. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services expanded coverage for telehealth visits Tuesday.

“The Trump Administration is taking swift and bold action to give patients greater access to care through telehealth during the COVID-19 outbreak,” said Administrator Seema Verma. “These changes allow seniors to communicate with their doctors without having to travel to a healthcare facility so that they can limit the risk of exposure and the spread of this virus. Clinicians on the frontlines will now have greater flexibility to safely treat our beneficiaries.”

Racine County offers guidance

Those experiencing symptoms consistent with COVID-19 are requested to call their health care
provider for guidance. Racine County health departments do not have tests or testing capacity.

Residents in Racine County should

  • DHS Emergency Order #5 prohibits all public and private gatherings of more than 10 people with few exceptions.
  • Practice social distancing!
  • Stay home when you are sick.
  • Wash your hands often.
  • Cover your coughs and sneezes.
  • Clean and disinfect frequently touched surfaces daily.

Denise Lockwood

Denise Lockwood has an extensive background in traditional and non-traditional media. She has written for Patch.com, the Milwaukee Business Journal, Milwaukee Magazine and the Kenosha News.