US coronavirus cases soar past 7,000 as health officials resort to desperate measures

As the world grapples with a deadly coronavirus outbreak, many hospitals in the US struggle to prepare for a major onslaught of patients needing care. CNN's Dr. Sanjay Gupta has the details.

Posted: Mar 18, 2020 5:01 PM
Updated: Mar 18, 2020 5:01 PM

The American health care system might not be equipped for what's next in the coronavirus pandemic if people don't heed warnings from authorities, health officials say.

As the US death toll tops 110, states are ordering more shutdowns. Hospital employees are making their own face masks. And doctors are begging the public to keep their distance from others.

"The bottom line is things will get much worse," said Dr. James Phillips, an assistant professor at George Washington University Hospital.

"We're at a significant risk of overwhelming the number of (hospital) beds we have."

More than 7,000 Americans have been infected with coronavirus, and that number changes by the hour.

Two major factors are fueling this pandemic: the fact that people with no symptoms can easily spread the virus, and problems with testing in the US.

That's why it's critical for everyone -- even those who don't feel sick -- to stay at least 6 feet away from others and avoid social gatherings.

"We're so far behind on testing, there's only one way we can be certain not to transmit the virus and be certain not to get it ourselves. And that is that we need to start treating every person as though they have this," Phillips said.

Similarly, "everyone needs to treat us like we have it, and socially distance ourselves in that manner. Because until we have (adequate) testing, we don't know who has this. And we're not sure when they start spreading it."

You asked, we're answering: Your top coronavirus questions every day

The fight against the virus also has taken an economic toll. The Senate on Wednesday approved a coronavirus relief package that includes paid emergency leave and measures for free testing. The legislation, approved by the House, will go to President Donald Trump to sign.

'History will not forgive us for waiting an hour more'

As the US scrambles to fight the outbreak, states are ordering new shutdowns and restrictions every day.

At least 39 states have shut down schools.

Nevada ordered the closure of all non-essential businesses for 30 days.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo issued an executive order Wednesday that requires at least 50% of a business' employees to work from home.

In Utah, Ohio, New York, New Jersey and Louisiana, customers can't sit in restaurants or bars -- all food must be ordered as takeout.

In Ohio, one bar was padlocked and barricaded for violating the governor's order Sunday and Monday, the Cincinnati Police Department said.

"Not only are you putting the general public at risk, you're putting our officers at risk that had to go in and deal with the individuals that were in violation," Patrol Bureau Commander Paul Neudigate said.

States such as Michigan and New Mexico have limited public gatherings to fewer than 50 people. Oregon put the cap at 25.

Earlier this week, the federal government said Americans should avoid groups of more than 10 people.

In Northern California, about 8 million people have been ordered to shelter in place. The Southern California city of Palm Springs issued a similar mandate.

What's allowed during a shelter-in-place order, and what's not?

"The time for half measures is over," San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo said. "History will not forgive us for waiting an hour more."

San Francisco has banned all non-essential travel, including walking, biking, driving or taking public transit.

"Individuals may go on a walk, get exercise, or take a pet outside to go to the bathroom, as long as at least six feet of social distancing is maintained," the city's mandate says.

Those riding public transit must maintain at least six feet of social distancing from other passengers.

"We know these measures will significantly disrupt people's day-to-day lives," San Francisco Mayor London Breed said. "But they are absolutely necessary."

'It will be ugly'

There won't be enough hospital beds, medical staff or equipment to handle the coronavirus outbreak if continues at its current pace, officials say.

"We will have a shortage of ICU beds. It will be ugly," Gov. Cuomo said this week.

New York state has 53,000 hospital beds. Wednesday, Cuomo said the state needs as many as 110,000 beds.

The challenges facing New York are "likely going to happen in the (rest of the) 50 states," said Dr. Peter Hotez, dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine.

Health officials say the US wasn't adequately prepared for this pandemic.

Two years ago, the CDC stopped funding epidemic prevention activities in 39 countries, including China, after the Trump administration refused to reallocate money to a program that started during the government's response to the 2014 Ebola outbreak.

At that time, former CDC director Dr. Tom Frieden said the move "would significantly increase the chance an epidemic will spread without our knowledge and endanger lives in our country and around the world."

In response to the coronavirus outbreak, "we're two months too late in starting to do this," said Dr. Eric Toner, who studies hospital preparedness at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security.

"I really think this is a fundamental responsibility of government to have acted on this a long time ago."

So now it's up to the public to take precautions and avoid giving and receiving the virus.

"What needs to happen in this country is we need to break the cycle of transmission," CNN Chief Medical Correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta said. "And it doesn't look like that's happening right now."

Health workers are sewing makeshift masks

In southwest Georgia, Phoebe Putney Health System used six months' worth of supplies less than a week, said Scott Steiner, the hospital group's president and CEO.

"We've got a three-day supply of N95 masks on hand," Steiner said Wednesday. "In order to preserve these, and get them to last longer, we've got a team of people sewing masks together."

He held up a "prototype" made of surgical sheeting that can be placed over a real N95 mask.

"This is what we're going to have to do because we don't know when the next shipment is coming," Steiner said.

Across the country, officials are taking drastic measures in the fight to control coronavirus.

New York state will waive Department of Health regulations on how many beds can be in a hospital room as it tries to double the number of beds.

The state is also reaching out to retired nurses and doctors plus medical and nursing schools to see whether they can help.

And two Navy hospital ships are being deployed along the East Coast to help alleviate the strain on hospitals.

Those ships, the Comfort and Mercy, won't be treating coronavirus patients. Instead, they'll treat other hospital patients so health care workers can concentrate on the growing numbers of coronavirus cases.

The Comfort will likely head to New York, but it will likely take weeks because the ship is undergoing maintenance, Pentagon spokesman Jonathan Hoffman said.

The Mercy will be ready much sooner, in a matter of days. But the destination is not clear.

"When it's prepared to sail, we will make a determination on where it's going to go." Hoffman said.

Medical equipment providers struggle to keep up

Ventilator manufacturer Hamilton Medical Inc. said it has received hundreds of orders and requests within the past few weeks.

"It is more than we can currently provide," said Kathrin Elsner, team leader of MarCom Ventilators at Hamilton Medical.

Michael Dowling, president and CEO of the Northwell Health, was picked by New York's governor to lead a hospital surge team. He said he wants to purchase as many as 500 ventilators, which can cost as much as $20,000 to $40,000 a machine.

Meanwhile, smaller, rural hospitals across the United States -- which often have no more than 25 beds and just one ventilator -- might be forced to transfer patients to larger facilities if they see a surge in cases.

"Who's at risk? Elderly, low-income, people with high health needs. That is rural America," said Alan Morgan, chief executive officer of the National Rural Health Association.

"You have a high proportion of low-income, elderly people with high health needs. So if you were to have a cluster in a rural community it would turn bad quickly."

Also in rural America, "You've got a shortage of primary care, certainly a shortage of specialty care," Morgan said. "You have a small clinical staff, so you can't afford mistakes."

But with the coronavirus outbreak, overworked employees are more likely to make errors.

"Part of it is just exhausting our personnel," said Dr. David Hill, a pulmonary critical care physician and a spokesman for the American Lung Association. "Health care is complicated, and people make mistakes when they're overworked."

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(Widget updates once daily at 7 p.m. CT)

Cases: 726304

Reported Deaths: 12985
CountyCasesDeaths
Cook3063696669
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Will39020565
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Kane31955469
Winnebago19150262
Madison14607259
McHenry14350156
St. Clair13579259
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Macon6602132
Kendall631847
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DeKalb502848
Adams477548
Vermilion397451
Boone396233
Whiteside3767117
Williamson365983
Clinton333761
Coles332759
Ogle288138
Knox284066
Grundy281318
Effingham280121
Henry272815
Jackson271136
Marion252351
Stephenson248935
Macoupin227618
Randolph227626
Livingston226828
Morgan222536
Bureau214543
Monroe208746
Franklin207725
Lee201935
Jefferson190859
Christian190343
Woodford179227
Logan173613
Fayette172231
Iroquois171926
McDonough160742
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Douglas136916
Jersey129824
Union119528
Montgomery115919
Saline112325
Crawford112213
Perry111223
Warren110120
Jo Daviess108317
Lawrence108211
Carroll107324
Bond105010
Pike102127
Cass96623
Hancock96412
Wayne91133
Moultrie90810
Clay84420
Greene82931
Edgar82015
Clark80520
Richland80119
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Mason73322
Johnson7246
Washington7122
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Cumberland62116
White6198
Massac6033
Wabash5808
Menard4731
Pulaski4262
Marshall4146
Hamilton3873
Brown3224
Henderson2901
Schuyler2781
Stark2693
Alexander2612
Calhoun2510
Putnam2460
Scott2330
Edwards2273
Gallatin1933
Unassigned1820
Hardin1561
Pope1011
Out of IL130

Indiana Coronavirus Cases

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Cases: 338977

Reported Deaths: 5723
CountyCasesDeaths
Marion46131870
Lake29183469
Allen19572307
Elkhart18074236
St. Joseph17808239
Hamilton14364172
Vanderburgh10546128
Tippecanoe948130
Porter890690
Johnson7132171
Hendricks6820162
Vigo643592
Monroe572452
Madison5506124
Clark547678
Delaware5252104
LaPorte501997
Kosciusko484042
Howard382978
Bartholomew355165
Warrick350073
Wayne345886
Floyd338078
Marshall320446
Cass311531
Grant302550
Hancock294357
Noble274147
Boone267655
Henry266139
Dubois253732
Jackson242034
Dearborn241131
Morgan236543
Gibson207329
Shelby204159
Knox198021
DeKalb193435
Clinton192922
Lawrence191349
Wabash183922
Miami181417
Adams180023
Daviess167545
Fayette159834
Jasper159113
Montgomery158329
Steuben158116
Harrison155824
Ripley155721
LaGrange152232
Whitley149715
Huntington141810
White140323
Decatur140044
Putnam138129
Wells137030
Clay135125
Randolph134022
Jefferson133416
Posey130318
Scott119421
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Sullivan106717
Jay106414
Jennings98714
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Spencer9268
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Fountain8778
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Washington8487
Franklin77027
Carroll75313
Orange73128
Vermillion6927
Owen6699
Parke6466
Tipton64027
Rush6078
Blackford59613
Newton59412
Pike54920
Pulaski45016
Benton3943
Martin3866
Brown3815
Crawford3251
Union3012
Switzerland2735
Warren2663
Ohio2457
Unassigned0267