Former President & CEO, INTEGRIS Health

Will COVID-19 Cause Surge Capacity?

Published in The Journal Record
March 25, 2020

Recently I watched a Trump health official being interviewed on cable news about the supply of ventilators in hospitals.  These machines are vital in the care of Coronavirus (COVID-19) infected patients since respiratory distress is a major symptom of the disease.  The question was, “Could our hospitals exhaust their supply of these machines?”  The correct answer is, “Yes.”  That could surely happen when demand exceeds supply.  The official, however, explained there are plenty of machines ready to be distributed should the infection rate get far worse.  This is, of course, nonsense.

                In her effort not to alarm the public, this expert engaged in health gobbledygook.  Let’s be clear.  Our health system is not designed to handle significant spikes in patient activity due to natural, manmade, or pandemic disasters.  It is designed, staffed, and equipped to address the average caseload that occurs 99% of the time.  In fact, we would not want, nor could we afford, a system with a surge capacity to handle all possible catastrophes.  Such capacity would be frightfully expensive and detract from the mission of addressing the needs of patients who present themselves with the normal vicissitudes of health misadventures.

                This should not surprise us.  There is not a system upon which we rely equipped to expand rapidly enough to address all our needs in a time of widespread panic.    Reflect on how quickly our grocery stores have emptied with the COVID-19 scare.  Our financial institutions have the same limitations.  We expect to be able to withdraw our money from our bank any time we wish.  But if all of us decided to do it at the same time we would be sorely disappointed.  Our money is simply not there.  The banks have lent it out.  Their business model depends on paying an attractive interest rate on the cash we deposit, then turning around and lending it at a higher rate.  The difference in the two rates is their profit. 

                Our whole personal and economic lives are built on the theory of average use rates.  Our sense of equanimity is bolstered by our confidence in our systems.  When we find our store is empty, our gas line is too long, our money not easily available, and our hospital system is stressed to capacity, we must realize it will take leadership both public and private to help us manage difficult times.

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