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As U.S. Looks Forward To COVID-19 Vaccines, Hospitals Are Inundated

NOEL KING, HOST:

The U.S. could approve our first COVID vaccine in the next few days. That's some really good news. But hospitals in some parts of this country are at a breaking point - in the American Southwest in particular. Now, one telling example, authorities in New Mexico are saying they may have to ration care. Reporter Will Stone is covering this story for us. Good morning, Will.

WILL STONE, BYLINE: Good morning.

KING: What is happening in the so-called Sunbelt states?

STONE: Yeah, the virus has just swept across the Southwest. Remember, this is where the summer surge was absolutely devastating. But in Arizona now, the state is breaking records, and cases are also higher in Texas than they've ever been. And in both states, hospitalizations are getting closer to that summer peak. Now, New Mexico actually did pretty well until the fall. And the crisis there shows just how hard it is to get this virus under control once it takes off. And that state went much further than others. Last month, the governor actually put in place a stay-at-home order. And still, doctors are facing down this nightmare scenario.

Take a listen to Dr. Irene Agostini, who's at the University of New Mexico hospitals.

IRENE AGOSTINI: All of our people want to help, and they want to be there for you. But please, please, don't put us in that position - to have to ration care. You know, if you're on the battlefield, that's one thing. But in a hospital in New Mexico, we never want to do that.

STONE: Now, it may not come to that. Cases have come down, and it does take a while for these stay-at-home orders to really pay off. But hospitals have to be ready if they reach capacity.

KING: We have heard about worries over rationing care since March, April of this year in different parts of the country. What does it actually look like?

STONE: Yeah, it won't be an on-and-off switch. It's going to happen bit by bit. And people tend to think about, you know, finite resources - who gets a bed or who gets a ventilator. But for COVID, it may come down to who gets the best care from doctors and nurses because that is the most limited resource. And this could be on the horizon not only in New Mexico, but possibly Utah, Missouri, Idaho, to name just a few.

KING: OK, so real bad in some states, in some places. I know, though, that you have also been looking at the Midwest, and it seems that there may be some better news there.

STONE: Yeah, there has been some improvement in the past few weeks. It seems like parts of the Midwest and the West have at least stabilized. And a promising sign is that hospitalizations are slowing down, especially in Iowa, Wisconsin and Kansas and to a lesser extent in the Dakotas and Illinois. But experts say this is very tenuous, and things could flare up very quickly because the Midwest is still inundated with the virus, and the rate of infections per capita is much higher than any other region.

KING: So based on your reporting, what do the next few weeks look like?

STONE: Yeah, it's a very grim forecast. More than 100,000 people are in the hospital right now. And Dr. Peter Hotez at Baylor College of Medicine says, just imagine what happens if that keeps climbing like it has been.

PETER HOTEZ: That's when mortality levels skyrocket, is when it starts becoming difficult to take care of patients in an optimal way. We saw that in York. We saw it in Southern Europe. We're seeing it now in pockets across the country. And that's how we could get the 4- to 500,000 Americans losing their lives in the early part of next year.

STONE: And what's really scary is that hospitals have not really seen the impact of the Thanksgiving holidays yet. So that wave of sick patients is expected to hit, you know, just as the next round of holidays is happening. And even with the rapid rollout of vaccines, the models do show that there could be more deaths from COVID than the total death toll of American soldiers in World War II in the next few months.

KING: Oh, my goodness. Reporter Will Stone. Will, thank you for your reporting. We appreciate it.

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


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