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Impact of social distancing could take weeks to measure

A family medicine physician and president of the North Carolina Institute of Medicine said the chance our hospitals will be overwhelmed "keeps him up at night."

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The president of the North Carolina Institute of Medicine said it’s still too early to tell how severe the coronavirus pandemic will become, but Dr. Adam Zolotor said the likelihood our hospitals will be overwhelmed with patients keeps him up at night.

“My number one concern is that we’re going to face really difficult treatment decisions if our health system gets overwhelmed,” he said Tuesday.

As the WCNC Defenders team recently discovered, there are not enough hospital and ICU beds or ventilators in the Carolinas for a moderate pandemic, let alone a severe one, which means, like in Italy right now, doctors would have to choose which patients to treat.

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“The physician or nurse has two patients in front of them and they have to say, ‘I have time to treat one, which one am I going to treat?'” Dr. Zolotor said of the situation in Italy.

If it comes to that here, both North Carolina and South Carolina have plans, created more than a decade ago in preparation of a flu pandemic, that includes ethical recommendations. 

The North Carolina Institute of Medicine authored North Carolina’s report, which will guide tough decisions moving forward.

The recommendations include that healthcare workers and other critical workers should get priority for limited personal protective equipment.

“It’s important for the safety of the community to allow health care workers to protect themselves in the best way possible,” Dr. Zolotor said.

The report also recommends when it comes to ventilators or other limited hospital services, priority should be given to those most likely to benefit, based on the severity of the illness and the likelihood of recovery.

“We wanted to spell out that decisions should not be made about who gets care based on race, ethnicity, income, health insurance or other factors that affect access to care,” Dr. Zolotor, the president of the North Carolina Institute of Medicine said.

A University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill epidemiologist is now projecting the preliminary number of coronavirus cases in this state will climb to 4,000 by April 2. The university reports the expert “is working diligently” to release an updated model, which would consider more factors, in the next one to two days.

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Dr. Zolotor believes North Carolina hospitals can handle the 4,000 number but worries if the cases rise beyond that, especially since the number of cases has doubled every few days nationwide.

“I think that the trouble is right now we’re seeing cases nationally double about every three days,” he said .”If you go another couple weeks beyond 4,000 cases, that gets to feel like it could overwhelm the system.”

He recommends people continue to practice common sense, be patient with officials and if a person in your family tests positive, it’s important to quarantine the entire household for 14 days.

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