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To Social Distance is to Save a Life – There are not enough Ventilators if Coronavirus outbreak continues

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Why both young and old must practice social distancing amidst COVID-19 pandemic

This is a critical time for all of us to be responsible citizens and practice social distancing.  States and governments have put in place restrictions on mass gathering for a real reason, for our safety and wellbeing. Coronavirus has been declared a pandemic. There is a reason why movie theaters, amusement parks, gyms, dining in at restaurants and casinos are closed and people are hunkering down buying up all the toilet paper.  

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That is because the risk of infection is high among large groups of people. This is why keeping greater than usual physical distance from other people and or objects in public places is so essential. And when maintained correctly can minimize and slow down the transmission of the novel coronavirus. Heavy strain is being placed on hospitals, doctors and medical staff when seemingly healthy people (but carry the virus)  are still going into the public and unintentionally affecting and putting those with compromised immune systems at risk. 

Thus without protective measures, or people living “life as normal” and going into heavily crowded public places and not practicing social distancing – the health care systems WILL NOT have the capacity to care for the sick. Only with protective measures (staying home if sick and steering clear from heavily populated public spaces) can we flatten the curve and allow for our current health care systems to care for the number of cases that require hospitalization. So read a book, listen to an audible, exercise… get creative.

Flatten the Curve
In a widely shared graphic, a tan curve represents a scenario without social distancing measures and where the U.S. hospital system becomes inundated with coronavirus patients. Chart / PBS

Hypothetical yet Realistic

Here is a scenario to better understand the gravity of why social distancing is so important.  Enter  (made up person) Dan, who is a young and healthy man, an extrovert that is use to hanging around with his friends out on the town.  Dan does not like the quarantine restrictions. He shows no symptoms, feels fine and does not know that he is indeed infected with the coronavirus.  Dan goes to a party on a Friday night, a big party with well over 50 people.  The next day, Saturday, 20 of those people from the party feel sick and experience difficulty in breathing and have to go to the hospital.  The hospital at this time is equipped to handle those 20 patients. Again on Saturday night, Dan goes to another big party with over 50 people in attendance, and the cycle repeats – the next day, on Sunday, another 20 people from the party feel sick, have difficulty breathing and have to go to the hospital. Here enters problem – the hospital is now not equipped to handle another surge of 20 people. 

Hospital are equipped with limited supplies and finite number of beds. For critical cases where patiences that are seriously injured or ill are taken to the intensive care unit (ICU) and special medical equipment and services are provided here.

Patients that experience difficulty in breathing, as one of the symptoms of the COVID-19, as the virus attacks a person’s lungs and in severe causes may require the use of a breathing machine also known as a ventilator or respirator. Typically because of the seriousness required to go to ICU – just one ICU bed is usually assigned with a team of medical providers (a nurse, critical care doctor, respiratory technician, phlebotomists, sometimes a nutritionist and/or specialist in infectious disease).

So what happens to the additional 20 people that the hospital cannot accommodate?  Most likely, they have to wait until an ICU bed with a ventilator opens up (which can be up to 2 weeks) or they are sent away.  Even worse, doctors are now being put in situations where they have to choose who to save because of the lack of machines and necessary resources. 

Had Dan not gone to the party on Friday night and heeded to social distancing advice, he would have not affected the first batch of 20 people. Additionally, if Dan would have waited a least 2 weeks between the two parties he attended, that would have also prevented the surge of patients coming into the hospital at the same time and the time gap would have allowed for those using ventilators to get better and free up space for incoming patients. 

Although Dan is fictional, not practicing social distancing does put people in danger, the NY Times reports there currently aren’t enough ventilators to cope with the coronavirus, now imagine it gets worse and people aren’t taking staying at home seriously?

The take away from this is partly cautionary – mostly staying at home is “not fun” – but it is way better to not know what to do with yourself at home (be bored) than be critical ill or dead from the coronavirus.  It is imperative to listen to public health officials and maintain the guidelines of social distancing.  If the collective “we” both young and old can do this, we will flatten the curve, decrease the spread of outbreaks, and take the much needed pressure off hospital and medical staff, and utimately save lives. 

Point blank – there will not enough ventilators to save people if we don’t stop or flatten the curve. Stay home to save a life. Don’t be like Dan.


Emergency Physician Emily Porter, M.D.

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