By Pauline Kerr
It appears the world is gearing up to fight a deadly enemy on many fronts – COVID-19, formerly known as the coronavirus that first appeared in Wuhan, China.
The outbreak had not been declared a pandemic as of press time but most people assume it is only a matter of time before that happens. COVID-19 is no longer confined to Wuhan or even China. Clusters of the illness have cropped up in Italy, Korea, Iran and other countries around the world – almost 60, as of the end of February.
Until recently, it was fairly easy to trace cases of the disease back to Wuhan – people who had visited that area and travelled home before they started showing symptoms. As time passes, it will become impossible to trace any connection to Wuhan. At that point, COVID-19 will have become a pandemic.
Some countries where the viral illness has appeared are like Canada, where patients who develop symptoms can be, and have been, identified, treated, and kept from infecting others. Other countries are not so fortunate.
COVID-19 is a coronavirus, the same family of viruses as the common cold and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), with symptoms ranging from mild to severe – everything from fever and trouble breathing, to organ failure and death. It is obviously quite contagious, and once it gets out of control, it will spread quickly.
We have no doubt about the presence of effective protocols and technology to treat isolated cases, including use of rooms with negative air pressure, proper masks – N95 style masks, not the little paper ones they give out at emerg – and even hazmat suits. Larger numbers may be another matter entirely.
Many of our local hospitals already run at near-to-full capacity, which means people being treated on stretchers in hallways and in emerg until a bed can be found. Most of us have a horror story to tell about someone getting sent home far too soon, not being admitted when they should have been, waiting for an atrociously long time in emerg, or experiencing hallway medicine first-hand. It is a fact of life in this province – the need for healthcare services has outstripped its availability.
There are many reasons for it, including advances in what we know and can do when it comes to looking after sick people. We have technology and medications good old Dr. Marcus Welby only dreamed of. Of course, it all comes with a price tag. And the pockets of those who pay the price – in Canada, taxpayers cover a lot of it – are not bottomless.
We also have an aging population. The post-war baby boom “bulge in the hose” has reached a time of life when people take more medications, visit the doctor more often and require more and longer hospital stays. Succeeding governments knew it was coming and failed to plan for it, opting instead to close hospitals, cut the number of nurses and decrease beds. Our small, rural hospitals have had to respond to the decision to get rid of mental hospitals and treat people in the community – with inadequate community resources. Now there is a desperate shortage of both nursing home spaces and home care, and again, the local hospital is where people end up.
Until an effective vaccine is found to prevent COVID-19, people are going to be getting sick with it, and the likely scenario is they will be urged to stay away from the hospital. In most cases, when symptoms are mild, that makes sense. But COVID-19 is not the common cold. It can kill, and some people with the virus will inevitably end up in hospital, putting a tremendous strain on a system that is already stretched to the limit.
How many cases of COVID-19, or the next scary disease, will it take to overwhelm our hospitals? The question can and should make us nervous – something to remember when we vote municipally, provincially and federally.
In the meantime, wash your hands often and stay away from people who are coughing and sneezing. If you are sick, please stay home.