Though the 1918 pandemic is perhaps the most relevant piece of history to consult about our current common disaster, there was another epidemic in the country that might also provide some lessons. From the late 40’s until 1955, there was a polio epidemic in the US, and some of the response to that epidemic might be relevant to how we’re going to battle COVID-19 later this year.
One of the more hair-raising stories my old man told me was his work at a locum at some tiny hospitals in western South Dakota. Some of the labor and delivery rooms, and operating rooms, had almost no resuscitation equipment, and they were generally unequipped to handle a lot of medical emergencies. For most victims, polio was not serious, but for the most seriously affected victims, it was a full-blown medical crisis which included high fever and seizures, not to mention paralysis of the respiratory system. These cases could not be cared for successfully at the typical small-town hospital of the time. The solution, in western South Dakota at least, was a polio hospital. This facility provided specialist care, including iron lungs, and saved lives.
After we get through this first wave of cases, our challenge with COVID-19 is going to be resuming life as we know it while treating the inevitable cases that will crop up during the next flu season. Perhaps these cases will be segregated in a regular hospital, but my guess is that we’ll build specialty hospitals, or re-purpose some medical facilities as specialty hospitals, just to isolate and treat COVID-19 cases. Once we have a test to determine if someone has antibodies, we can staff those hospitals with people who have had the virus and developed immunity (assuming having it causes immunity). With the development of a quick reaction test to see if patients have the virus, those who are positive can be quickly moved to the specialty hospital. The regular hospitals can go back to treating the vulnerable without worrying about infecting them in the process.
This is just one scenario, and I know that the volume of polio patients was nothing like the 1918 or current pandemic, but if we can just buy ourselves some time, there are a lot of creative ways we can go back to semi-normal and still have some good outcomes for those infected.