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Doctor On Wisconsin Hospital Preparation Amid Coronavirus Surge


Wisconsin is one of the states seeing a dramatic surge in COVID-19 cases. My co-host, Ari Shapiro spoke with the state's lieutenant governor, Mandela Barnes, yesterday about a new emergency hospital the state has set up on the fairgrounds near Milwaukee.


MANDELA BARNES: Hospitals are on the brink. We haven't had to put anybody into that alternate facility. However, that is why it's in place...



BARNES: ...So that we can be prepared in the event that that does happen.

CHANG: Well, joining us now with more on the state's hospital preparations is Dr. Nasia Safdar. She is the medical director of infection control and protection at the University of Wisconsin. Dr. Safdar, welcome.

NASIA SAFDAR: Thank you so much.

CHANG: So how close do you think Wisconsin is to meeting those emergency beds the lieutenant governor was talking about yesterday?

SAFDAR: You know, I think it's a very fluid situation. There are certainly places in Wisconsin that are experiencing a surge the likes of which we have not seen thus far. And so I think, you know, you could feel that you have reasonable capacity one day and then be completely overwhelmed the following. It just depends how many patients come through the door.

CHANG: Well, does Wisconsin need assistance from the federal government right now if the hospital beds continue to keep filling up?

SAFDAR: Well, I think the current plan with the alternate facility will help decompress some of the health systems, but there are certainly other places and other resources that one might need. I think the testing supply chain is still not as robust as one would like. PPE is still being reused around the country. And then I think staffing is - it's somewhat easier to conjure up beds, but you really can't create a fully trained health care worker out of nothing.

CHANG: You mentioned PPE, personal protective equipment. I understand that in some situations you have seen staff reuse and N95 masks, for example. What are the risks when staff over-reuse N95 masks?

SAFDAR: I think there are two risks. One is that the fit would not be ideal. So every time you wear an N95 because you are fit-tested for it, you have to make sure that it's molding to your face, which doesn't allow air to come in. So when you reuse it, then you lose some of that integrity and some of that fit. And then the other is, you know, the outside of the mask, of course, would be considered contaminated because when you're looking after somebody with COVID, there might be droplets and things landing on the mask. So when you take it off, you run the risk of contaminating yourself.

CHANG: I mean, we have been struggling with this pandemic for several months. We have been talking about supply problems when it comes to PPE and testing capacity for several months. Are you surprised that there are still challenges now?

SAFDAR: I have to say I am surprised a little bit because it seems that there has been ample time to work out some of these kinks. But I guess we haven't seen a situation where one could be confident that when you place an order for a certain amount of tests that that order would be filled the way it's placed. And so without that confidence, then, we feel that we must conserve resources more so than we would otherwise need to do.

CHANG: Now, I'm just thinking about the scale of the numbers right now in Wisconsin. Wisconsin reported 3,700 new cases yesterday, bringing the statewide total past 162,000 cases. More than 1,500 people have died. How well has the state been able to keep up with the contact tracing for all of those cases? Are there even enough people to do all of that contact tracing right now?

SAFDAR: I think it's virtually impossible for any state to keep up with contact tracing when the numbers are as high as they have been. One of the challenges with contact tracing is, you know, there's two things. One is the staff that you need to make the phone calls and connect with people, but also there's a certain aspect of time sensitivity to it. If several days go by and contact tracing hasn't been done, it starts to lose its value altogether. So with the current numbers, it's hard to even imagine how contact tracing could possibly be continued in as rigorous a way as one would like.

CHANG: Dr. Nasia Safdar with the University of Wisconsin, thank you very much for spending the time to speak with us today.

SAFDAR: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.