On Thursday evening, Donald Trump dropped in on Fox News host Sean Hannity to complain about how governors were pestering him for more of those darn ventilators. Trump not only declared that the governors were being ridiculous in asking for thousands of ventilators and pulled from his posterior the “fact” that major hospitals “don’t even have one,” he also complained that those things are expensive. Why, for the price of a ventilator, you could almost pay the annual dues at Mar-a-Lago. (That’s assuming you’d already paid the upfront membership costs, which would be enough for a dozen ventilators.)
But as Trump scoffs at the idea that hospitals actually need more ventilators, NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital has begun a desperate practice: sharing a ventilator between two patients. Because when Trump is providing nothing at all, half a lung is better than nothing. Maybe.
Trump’s scoffing at the idea that New York hospitals actually need thousands of additional ventilators got additional support from another member of his coronavirus task force. Incredibly, this support didn’t come from Vice President Mike Pence or Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, but from an actual doctor: White House coronavirus taskforce coordinator Deborah Birx.
Speaking at the daily coronavirus-themed Trump rally on Thursday, Birx dismissed the thought that hospitals were short of either beds or ventilators, denied that a large percentage of the public would become infected, and suggested that there were “thousands” of ventilators sitting idle in New York state hospitals that could be moved to where they were needed.
With less than 1% of the United States currently infected, Birx was particularly dismissive of the idea that there would be widespread infection. “When people start talking about 20% of a population getting infected, it’s very scary but we don’t have data that matches that based on the experience,” said Birx.
Except, of course, we do. The seasonal flu regularly infects 20% or more of the population in spite of a widely available vaccine, residual immunity in a large portion of the population, and a transmission rate that is much lower than that of COVID-19. There is absolutely no evidence that the infection in the United States will not spread to much more than 20% of the population, unless it’s held in check by social distancing and a greatly expanded testing program.
As if realizing that 20% might be something of a low mark, Birx’s next statement moved the bar considerably higher: “There’s no … no reality ... on the ground where we can see that 60% to 70% of Americans are going to get infected in the next eight to 12 weeks,” said the White House coronavirus response coordinator. Actually, the current doubling rate of the coronavirus in the United States is between two and three days. Unchecked, the United States could top 20% in fewer than three weeks. Eight weeks to get to 60% from there would mean that things had actually improved considerably.
But long before either of those numbers would be reached, the health care system would absolutely collapse under the weight of the epidemic. There are only enough hospital beds out there in the entire nation to accommodate less than 0.3% of the population. On any given day, more than half those beds—including the ones that need ventilators—are already occupied by people fighting ordinary, non-epidemic diseases and recovering from accidents.
But Birx insisted that there are still somewhere between 1,000 and 2,000 ICU beds with ventilators in New York state, outside of New York City. Birx suggested that these ventilators, and presumably the beds, should be stripped and shipped to the hot spots rather than bothering the federal government with requests for more equipment. Except taking those beds away from the remainder of the state would mean that those hospitals have absolutely no capacity to deal with coronavirus cases in their area—or even a large accident or other cause that brought in patients.
What Birx is suggesting is that, rather than bolster the straining system, the system be made even more fragile in the midst of a crisis. Even then, the number of devices she is talking about are unlikely to meet the number of cases that will be present in New York in the next 48 hours, much less the next weeks and months.
Again and again, Birx dismissed questions about hospitals under strain, or large numbers of patients waiting for care, or health care workers without needed equipment. “We don’t have any evidence of that right now,” said Birx. Instead, she accused news media of “spreading fear.” She also insisted on spending much of her time talking about “19 states” where the number of cases were low.
Which is exactly what you want to hear from a doctor in a crisis: “Did you know there are some people who are not sick?”
Meanwhile, as The New York Times reports, real hospitals in the real world are taking desperate measures. The doubling up two patients on one ventilator is a technique that has been used in Italy. Italy, where the health care system is badly overtaxed. Italy, where the death rate from COVID-19 is now above 10%.
And New York, along with other cities, is preparing for the next phase because they’ve already gained approval for a device that allows a single ventilator to be split between four patients. If that device is not already in use, it will be.
From the beginning of the coronavirus task force, Birx’s role has clearly been 75% Donald Trump cheerleader, 25% provider of information. Now she’s not only dropped one of those roles—she’s actively providing disinformation that is supporting inhumane decisions and making the situation worse.