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'Hospitals Not Prepared,' Warn Nurses as Nationwide Survey Shows 'Fractured' System Amid Coronavirus Outbreak

"We just don't have the capacity in the hospitals and health systems to deal with a massive influx of patients and keep them isolated."

A healthcare worker prepares to transport a patient on a stretcher into an ambulance at Life Care Center of Kirkland on February 29, 2020 in Kirkland, Washington.

A healthcare worker prepares to transport a patient on a stretcher into an ambulance at Life Care Center of Kirkland on February 29, 2020 in Kirkland, Washington. (Photo: David Ryder/Getty Images)

The nation's healthcare system is unprepared to handle a coronavirus outbreak that could already be underway, health professionals are warning, and the result could be "chaos."

"This crisis highlights our country's completely fractured health care system and failure to invest in public health,"  said Bonnie Castillo, executive director of the National Nurses United (NNU), on Thursday as her union released preliminary findings from an ongoing nationwide survey of health professionals and facilities.

"Facilities don't have a plan, or they haven't explained the plan, or they don't have the supplies, equipment, and training to carry out any plan," said Castillo. "The outcome of this chaos is that health care workers, patients, and the entire community are exposed to this virus and needlessly put at risk."

The survey focused on coronavirus (also known as COVID-19) preparedness and made clear that the vast majority of healthcare facilities are not ready to deal with an outbreak, the group said.

According to NNU:

Thousands of responses show that high percentages of hospitals do not have plans, isolation procedures, and policies in place for COVID-19; that communication to staff by employers is poor or nonexistent; that hospitals are lacking sufficient stocks of personal protective equipment (PPE) or are not making current stocks readily available, and have not provided training and practice to staff on how to properly use PPE.

"The survey results confirm what we have been hearing from nurses across the country: Hospitals are not prepared," said Castillo. "This crisis highlights our country's completely fractured health care system and failure to invest in public health."

The survey results came just after President Donald Trump said on national television Wednesday night that people with the coronavirus could go to work and suggested—based on a "hunch"—that global reporting on the virus' death rate was false.

Washington Post report Wednesday evening cited similar concerns from health professionals worried about their ability to handle an outbreak. 

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"We just don't have the capacity in the hospitals and health systems to deal with a massive influx of patients and keep them isolated," Johns Hopkins University professor Gerard Anderson told the Post

According to the Post:

The amount of federal funding given to state and local officials to prepare for health emergencies has been cut in half or more over the past couple of decades, according to Crystal Watson, senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security.

The two key federal programs amounted to $1.4 billion in 2003. Those two programs amount to $662 million this year.

"Every administration has made cuts to these programs," Watson said. "It's been in a downward trend for a long time."

In Seattle, the hardest-hit U.S. community to date, city councilmember Kshama Sawant called on local and state officials to take action to protect the public beyond simply declaring the situation an emergency. 

In its press release announcing the survey's results, NNU called on federal and state governments, as well as health facilities, to emphasize clear communication, health protocols, and to immediately provide federal spending to address the unfolding crisis. NNU Executive Council vice president and nurse Cathy Kennedy said that help from healthcare administrators would be critical to ensuring public health.

"Nurses are confident that we can contain this disease and prevent unnecessary deaths and suffering," said Kennedy. "But our employers and the government need to provide us with the right guidelines, staffing, equipment, and supplies in order for us to do this work safely. We, our patients, and the public deserve nothing less."

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