WHO says health systems collapsing, ‘This isn’t just a bad flu season’

WHO says health systems collapsing, ‘This isn’t just a bad flu season’


World Health Organization (WHO) Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus gestures during a press briefing on evolution of new coronavirus epidemic on January 29, 2020 in Geneva.

Fabrice Coffrini | AFP | Getty Images

World Health Organization officials warned Friday against dismissing the coronavirus that’s swept across the globe as just a bad outbreak of the flu, saying it has overwhelmed health systems around the world in just a few weeks.

“Take one look at what’s happening in some health systems around the world. Look at the intensive care units completely overwhelmed. Doctors and nurses utterly exhausted,” Mike Ryan, executive director of the World Health Organization’s emergencies program, said at a press briefing from the organization’s Geneva headquarters. “This is not normal. This isn’t just a bad flu season.”

The virus has now infected more than 254,000 people and killed at least 10,444 people across the world, according to Johns Hopkins University. Last week, the WHO declared that Europe had become the new epicenter of the outbreak, which began in Wuhan, China in December.

Ryan estimated that more than 26 million health-care workers may end up treating COVID-19 patients, and there’s a shortage of protective equipment for them.

“These are health systems that are collapsing under the pressure of too many cases,” he said, adding that the supply chain for personal protective gear like masks, gloves and gowns is under immense pressure. “It’s safe to say that the supply chain is under huge pressure,” he said.

As the virus has spread from China across the world, it has overwhelmed come countries. In Italy, the death toll is rising by the hundreds everyday as health officials struggle to increase the country’s health-care capacity. On Thursday, the number of people who have died from COVID-19 in Italy surpassed that of China.

Countries throughout Europe and elsewhere are now implementing social distancing policies to slow the spread of the virus and keep the number of patients needing care below the capacity of the health systems. The governments of Italy, Spain and other hard-hit countries have restricted travel within the country.

In the U.S., San Francisco Bay Area officials ordered some 7 million residents to “shelter in place” on Monday, prohibiting people from leaving their homes, except under “limited circumstances,” according to the order. New York, the state with the most confirmed cases, followed suit on Friday, requiring nonessential businesses to keep 100% of their workforce at home, and putting in place stringent new restrictions on individuals.

In announcing the new rules, Gov. Andrew Cuomo called for hospitals to increase their capacity to treat an influx of COVID-19 patients. He also asked businesses to get creative with manufacturing protective equipment like masks and gowns for healthcare workers. And he called for more manufacturing of respirators, a life-saving medical device key to helping COVID-19 patients breathe. 

“The ventilators are to this war what missiles were to World War II,” he said.

Earlier this week, Cuomo projected that the state will need up to 110,000 hospital beds when the outbreak in New York peaks within the next 45 days. That’s more than double the state’s current capacity, he said.

“Right now, in New York specifically, the rate of the curve suggests that in 45 days we could have up to an input of people who need 110,000 beds that compares to our current capacity of 53,000 beds, 37,000 ICU units, ventilators, which compares to a capacity currently of 3,000 ventilators,” he said Wednesday. “That’s our main issue.”

— CNBC’s Noah Higgins-Dunn and Emma Newburger contributed to this article.


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