Northam to 15,000 Sick Virginians: Keep Waiting

Bend over. This’ll only take two weeks.

by James A. Bacon

Here’s how I was tempted to headline this post:

Northam to Sick Virginians: Drop Dead

But that would have been unfair. In extending his ban on elective surgery by a weeks, the Governor doesn’t want people to literally drop dead. He’s just willing to prolong their misery and uncertainty. Not to mention the misery and uncertainty of thousands of Virginia healthcare workers laid off because of the ban. And the financial hardship of hospitals who are hemorrhaging cash due to the loss of business.

Of all of Northam’s errors of commission and omission in the battle against the COVID-19 epidemic, this is the most egregious. His justification for the prohibition, announced yesterday, flies in the face of reality. In his executive order and public statements, he cites the need to conserve hospital beds and the personal protective equipment used to safeguard healthcare practitioners treating COVID-19 patients. Yet his statements are directly contradicted by a letter that the Virginia Hospital and Healthcare Association provided the Governor in a letter six days ago and released publicly yesterday.

From his press release:

My top priority is protecting public health, and that includes ensuring that our frontline medical staff have the equipment they need to stay safe as they treat Virginians who are sick.

We have increased our supply of PPE, but before we allow elective surgeries to resume, we must first be assured that the doctors, nurses, and medical staff who are fighting this virus or conducting emergency surgeries have the necessary supplies. We are working with medical facilities on plans to ensure that we can resume elective surgeries safely and responsibly.

Has Northam been breathing too much laughing gas? The number of COVID-19 patients in hospitals has stabilized. Hospital beds are not in short supply. As of April 18, according to VHHA President Sean Connaughton, Virginia hospitals were treating 1,301 COVID-19 patients. They had 5,327 beds available. Hospitals also had 2,264 ventilators collecting dust. 

Although protective gear is in somewhat short supply, the ban on elective surgery will do almost nothing to alleviate it. As the hospital association said in a document outlining the path ahead, the personal protective equipment used to treat protective disease patients is not the same as the equipment used in elective surgery! “The supply chain for most standard PPE for surgery has not been impacted to a significant degree due to COVID-19. Health care professionals performing surgeries have supplies to safely care for patients.”

The Northam administration’s inability to grasp this fact is extraordinary. Do Virginia’s public health officials have a clue about what is going on? No wonder Northam needed to hire the McKinsey consulting firm to acquire more equipment.

Meanwhile, Virginia hospitals are delaying roughly 15,000 elective surgeries a week. Northam’s delay directly impacts 15,000 patients… not to mention 30,000 health care workers now collecting unemployment and hospitals bleeding out cash.

Northam offers this howler of a statement: “We are working with medical facilities on plans to ensure that we can resume elective surgeries safely and responsibly.”

Working with whom? Not the VHHA, the trade association representing the state’s hospitals. The VHHA has offered his own “Framework for Reopening Virginia’s Hospitals,” which bears no resemblance to Northam’s action.

I find myself baffled by the Governor’s decision. I grope to discern even a political motive behind the move. I can find only two explanations: (1) for reasons unknown, he is willfully ignoring the data presented by the VHHA, or (2) his administration is so dysfunctional that the data is not filtering through to the Governor. Whatever the case, Northam’s action yesterday does not bode well for his willingness to relax the shutdown in other areas. This shutdown is going to be long and ugly.

Update: According to data just released by the Virginia Employment Commission, more than 30,000 healthcare workers have been furloughed or laid off, reports the Virginia Mercury. I have updated this post to incorporate that number.

Update: The original post incorrectly stated that Northam’s executive order imposed a two-week delay on elective procedures. I have updated the post to reflect accurate information.