Dr. Michael Osterholm, an epidemiologist and expert on the covid-19 pandemic, warns U.S. hospitals have become so overwhelmed that people with coronavirus will soon be dying in ER waiting rooms. And he’s not talking about something that could happen six months from now. Dr. Osterholm says this nightmare scenario will start within a few weeks.
“You know, my worst fear is what we saw happen in other countries, where people were dying on the streets. People literally were dying in the waiting room of emergency rooms after spending ten hours just waiting to be seen. That’s going to start happening,” Osterholm said.
Dr. Osterholm, the director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, made the warning on NBC’s Meet the Press on Sunday. Osterholm, who recently became an advisor to President-elect Joe Biden’s coronavirus committee, warned that “a few more weeks of this level of activity” will create a situation where people will be dropping dead in ER waiting rooms.
The U.S. has identified over 11 million coronavirus cases and more than 246,000 deaths, with a startling rise in both cases and hospitalizations over the past week. The U.S. currently has over 68,000 people hospitalized with covid-19 and has recorded over 1 million new coronavirus cases in the past week alone.
Dr. Osterholm seemed optimistic that even though people would be dying, it might serve as a wake-up call for some Americans to get their act together and act more responsibly.
“The media will start reporting it and we will see the breadth and the depth of this tragedy,” Dr. Osterholm said on Sunday about people dying in waiting rooms.
“That, I hope, will not be the way that we finally decide to reduce our risk, this idea of swapping air. We’ve got to stop doing that. And so, I think it is the health care system’s breaking—literally breaking—that will unfortunately bring us to a sense of reality of what we must do in the short term.”
The problem with Osterholm’s theory, of course, is that he assumes some covid deniers—people who firmly believe the pandemic is little more than a hoax—will snap into reality about this pandemic after people start dying in waiting rooms. It’s hard to square that belief with the fact that Americans are already dying by the thousands every week, and there are still plenty of people who deny that it’s happening, driven largely my disinformation networks tied to President Donald Trump and his followers.
Strangely, Dr. Osterholm made it sound like people were only dying in waiting rooms in other parts of the world, but some Americans did die in hospital waiting rooms during the first wave of the pandemic. At least two people died in a Detroit ER hallway in early April according to CNN, and an untold number of others died in New York in late March, according to the New York Times.
Dr. Osterholm also didn’t mention that some people in small towns are already dying in hospitals that aren’t equipped to treat covid patients, waiting for hospital bed space in larger cities with ICU beds. At least six patients have died in one hospital system under that exact scenario according to USA Today. And at least one hospital in North Dakota has started sending patients to nursing homes because they simply don’t have room. Roughly one in thirteen people in North Dakota have tested positive for the coronavirus, the highest rate in the nation.
Dr. Osterholm isn’t the only one warning about the immediate future of America’s hospital system. Science journalist Ed Yong warns that the 1.5 million coronavirus cases that have been confirmed over the past two weeks haven’t yet shown up in hospital statistics.
Yong notes that there’s a 12-day lag for some of those people who tested positive to get bad enough to need hospitalization.
“Another way to think about these lags is that some of the people who are infected on Thanksgiving will enter the hospital in the middle of December, and the morgue around Christmas,” Yong tweeted on Sunday.
And all of that is to say nothing of the people who struggle with so-called “covid long haul” syndrome—the unexplained situation where people struggle with chronic fatigue and terrible symptoms for months, even if they only had a relatively “mild” case of covid-19. It’s not simply a binary sentence between life and death when it comes to the coronavirus. Even those who survive can struggle with horrific medical conditions for months.
Dr. Scott Gottlieb, President Trump’s former FDA commissioner and a regular contributor to CBS News and CNBC, also has a new op-ed in the Wall Street Journal warning that the worst is yet to come, with perhaps 200,000 more covid-19 deaths in the U.S. by the end of January.
From the Wall Street Journal:
In previous waves, health-care workers from less-affected areas were deployed to New York and the South. It isn’t possible to send an army of health-care personnel into hot zones when the entire country is a hot zone. Another 15% of the U.S. population could be infected by the end of January, on top of the 15% that has already been infected. The genetic epidemiologist Trevor Bedford estimates that such a course could result in about 200,000 more deaths, assuming an improved infection fatality rate of about 0.45%.
Gottlieb argues that a coordinated national response is needed to get everyone on the same page, something that Dr. Olsterholm has also been begging for since the pandemic began. But President Trump, a man who still hasn’t conceded that he lost the presidential election, has done virtually nothing to stop the spread of this disease. In fact, he’s actively made it worse through his campaign rallies and the appointment of covid deniers to the White House Coronavirus Task Force.
Dr. Scott Atlas, Trump’s most trusted medical advisor, even tweeted a shocking tirade over the weekend where he seemed to be advocating for violence against Michigan’s governor, Gretchen Whitmer, a woman who was the subject of an alleged kidnapping plot.
Atlas denied in a later tweet that he was advocating for violence, instead saying that his words could be about voting, but Trump goons are always walking right up to the line and daring people to cross it, all while maintaining some kind of plausible deniability. Also, voting is done you dumbass. It stopped on November 3. When you tell a bunch of armed people to “rise up” that’s rarely seen as a call for casting ballots.
Virtually everyone recognizes that Americans have no appetite for new lockdown measures, especially since the federal government is not providing any financial support for people to stay home. But that simply means a lot more people are going to get very sick, and some of them are going to die. Americans will have to wait for Biden to take control of the U.S. government on January 20 to have some semblance of real leadership, but the pandemic is likely to be at its absolute worst near the end of January.
A recent poll showed that 38% of Americans plan to have Thanksgiving gatherings of ten or more people later this month. If you’re in that 38%, please consider making other plans. As Dr. Osterholm repeatedly says on his podcast, think of this as our “covid year.”
It might suck to not see your family members, but it’s really for everyone’s health and safety. If you spend Thanksgiving with a bunch of people you don’t normally live with, you’re likely to spend New Year’s Facetiming with them from the hospital. It’s simply not worth it. And if you really love your friends and family, you’ll promise to spend Thanksgiving 2021 with them after we hopefully get this thing under control.