Are Health Workers Unintentionally Doing Harm in COVID-19 Response

Response requires more aggressive isolation and social distancing restrictions

For weeks, U.S. public health experts have urgently called to “flatten the curve” of new COVID-19 infections to prevent health systems from becoming overwhelmed. Initial evidence is showing that social distancing may be working. Unfortunately, a flood of patients are overwhelming in urban and rural hospitals in epidemic hotspots.

Here in the U.S., we are weeks behind the pandemic-–in both the curve of the outbreak and the response. Cases of COVID-19 are the highest in the world, and our rate of new infections now closely follows countries where thousands have already died from the virus. Testing is still not universally available, as both anecdotes and data have shown. Ventilators are scarce in the hardest-hit areas. These are facts.

In the short history of this crisis, only two countries have successfully arrested the wave of new infections: South Korea and China. In their own ways, they were prepared to take aggressive measures that shockingly the U.S. is still hesitant to do.

One of those steps was to isolate health workers between shifts rather than go home to their families. And it worked. Breaking these chains of transmission are key, according to the World Health Organization. So far, neither the White House nor the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have established clears guidelines.

As a physician, I took the Hippocratic Oath to first “do no harm” in the practice of my profession. This is the standard by which we must judge our national leaders, policymakers, hospital systems and health workers, and every member of the White House Coronavirus Task Force, including President Trump.

White House officials should immediately recommend that states and local governments implement programs to temporarily isolate first responders, doctors, and nurses from their families, as well as recommend that people with minor symptoms should isolate outside of the household where others, especially elderly, immunocompromised or pregnant individuals, reside.

Health care workers can be housed comfortably in university dormitories, hotels, or other available locations currently sitting empty. Both public and private universities, and potentially the hospitality industry, could contribute to this effort. Leaders at all levels of government should immediately develop plans to launch this strategy as fast as possible.

Economies recover. Dead loved-ones never return. Now is the time to be courageous. And courage requires both sacrifice and clear-eyed, fact-based optimism.

# Dr. Paul Zeitz, physician & infectious disease epidemiologist, Co-Chair of the COVID-19 Emergency Response Group, Founder of Build A Movement 2020
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