As the covid-19 infection rate is rising exponentially faster than news outlets and authorities can keep up, the CDC has released a self-checker bot for United States residents to advise whether or not their symptoms merit a hospital visit. Microsoft, whose technology powers the service, describes this as a tool to avoid “a bottleneck that threatens to overwhelm health systems coping with the crisis.”
Preparations for that scenario are underway. In New York City, FEMA and the Army Corps of Engineers have been dispatched to install makeshift hospitals in the Javits Center, providing a total of 2,000 beds. On Sunday, the New York Times reported that the total of 16,887 confirmed covid-19 cases in the State of New York had more than tripled from Saturday’s figure and surpassed the CDC’s national tally from Friday. As of Monday morning, nearly one person was dying of covid-19 per hour in NYC alone. The United States has reached a total of 35,345 reported cases.
The CDC’s bot is more of a self-triage tool than a substitute for professional medical diagnosis, and for that reason, it’s specific to the United States. It first asks about age and preexisting health conditions before proceeding from life-threatening symptoms such as gasping for air or experiencing seizures that won’t stop, to lesser symptoms like a fever and cough. It also asks for your location and whether you’ve been exposed to people who’ve tested positive for the virus. Depending on the severity of symptoms, you may be directed to call 911, go to the ER, call a healthcare provider, or stay home and self-isolate.
According to the CDC, most people infected with covid-19 experience mild symptoms and can recover from home. If you need care, the CDC recommends calling ahead before going to the doctor so that medical professionals can prepare to protect themselves.
Self-triage and social distancing could not only help stem the “bottleneck” at hospital wards but also mitigate a health crisis co-existing simultaneously with the covid-19 outbreak: the physical and mental health of already-overburdened medical professionals. As the New York Times has reported, United States medical professionals are doing their jobs at personal risk with limited protective equipment. Those who are well enough to work potentially face the extraordinary emotional stress of being forced to make life-and-death decisions by redistributing scarce life-support supplies like respirators. Speaking with David Remnick on Friday, Dr. Philip Rosoff of Duke University said that the trauma burdening those caregivers “should not be underestimated.” Filling out the survey should also help the CDC get a better idea of the extent of the outbreak across all the states while testing remains embarrassingly inadequate and will hopefully give the agency more tools for allocating resources.