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Area hospitals say they're ready for potential surge of coronavirus as NC reopens

Posted May 6, 2020 7:48 a.m. EDT
Updated May 6, 2020 8:44 p.m. EDT

— Triangle area hospitals prepared for an initial surge in coronavirus cases that never came this spring, so they say they're ready if infections do spike as stay-at-home restrictions are eased.

Clothing stores, bookstores and other retailers can open as early as Friday evening as long as they follow social distancing guidelines for customers and staff and adhere to strict cleaning protocols. Salons, gyms, movie theaters and other businesses could open by May 22 under similar restrictions.

"I understand trying to open up the economy and get businesses going on, but I think there’s got to be a calculation that we’ll probably see an upswing of cases in COVID-19," said Dr. David Wohl, a professor in the UNC School of Medicine's Division of Infectious Diseases.

"We know that people who can’t social distance are getting infected. So that’s a message," Wohl said. "As we become more like them, we will also become more susceptible."

UNC Health and Duke Health have been ramped up for weeks for coronavirus patients, setting up triage tents outside their emergency departments to keep people who might be infected with the virus separate from other trauma cases.

"The Duke Health system has taken what we’ve learned in the last several months and are applying that to the possibility that we will see a second surge as the state begins to reopen," said Dr. Joseph Rogers, chief medical officer for Duke Health.

"We anticipated having 10 times more patients in the hospital than we’ve actually seen. So, we had prepared for that eventuality," Rogers said.

"I think the surge capacity that we at UNC and others have built is going to come in handy if we start to see more cases with the reopening," Wohl said.

Not having the early surge allowed hospitals to set up new supply chains for protective gear for providers and to get their protocols in place regarding staffing and patient separation, both physicians said.

Telehealth options also have been expanded to provide more safety.

"I want our patients and community to feel like we have done everything we can to keep them safe," said Dr. Abhi Mehrotra, emergency medical director at UNC Health's Hillsborough campus. "If they need to come to the emergency department, they should. We want to take care of the needs they have in that medical emergency."

Rogers and Wohl said, however, that they wish the state had more testing capacity to get a better idea of the extent of the coronavirus in North Carolina.

"We probably have underestimated the number of people in the community who have the disease," Rogers said.

"We really need mass testing because, once you are tested and you find out you’re positive, there’s measures we can take, such as keeping you at home," Wohl said. "That’s what other places have done, and they were able to flatten the curve dramatically. We’ve flattened, but we haven’t gone down the other side of the hill."

The best way to head off a surge in cases as business and social activities resume, they said, is social distancing – or continuing to stay at home as much as possible.

"Just because the store is open doesn’t mean you can go in there," Wohl said. "We all have to be hyper-vigilant and keep protected, just like we were before, and just be probably even more cautious now that there’s more circulating."

"I want to encourage all of the community to continue following the public health practices that have been preached by so many of us to wear masks, wash hands frequently, socially distance, and let’s all learn together about how to reopen the state in a safe and proper way," Rogers said.

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