Not long ago, hospitals worried about having enough ventilators for coronavirus patients.
Fast forward nine months, and it's not the supply of ventilators or PPE they're worried about, it's whether they have enough health care professionals to operate the ventilators and treat the patients who rely on them.
“While we have manufactured ventilators, we’ve manufactured PPE, we haven’t manufactured staff. That is not something we can do in short order," said Dr. Lewis Kaplan, president of the Society of Critical Care Medicine, a national organization.
NBC 7 Investigates did a quick search online for job posting for respiratory therapists, and we found dozens of openings, many of them posted just days ago
“I’m hearing on a daily basis from hospitals who can’t get temporary workers,” said Dr. Eric Toner, Senior Scholar for John Hopkins Center for Health Security.
That's in part because operating a ventilator is a lot more complicated than pressing a button, according to Toner.
“People on ventilators with COVID-19 are desperately sick,” Toner said, adding that if you don't know what you're doing you can kill someone with a ventilator.
“Not every nurse can do this,” Toner said. “Not every doctor can do this. Ventilators are an invasive device. You can do a lot of harm or you cannot do a lot of good, if you don’t know what you’re doing.”
Toner led a report published Tuesday that studied the surge that overwhelmed hospitals in New York this past spring.
Back then, Toner said many healthcare workers from across the country traveled to Manhattan to help.
“That wouldn’t happen now because the disease is everywhere,” he said. “Every state is surging.”
Kaplan and other medical experts worry hospitals may be even more strained these next few months than they at the onset of the pandemic.
"We have a couple of things that are different from when COVID finally landed in the United States,” Kaplan said.
Back in the spring, elective surgeries were put on hold. That freed up beds and hospital staff to help treat COVID-19 patients. But now that elective procedures are back, Kaplan thinks the surge we're experiencing now could push hospitals to the limit.
“We won’t have enough beds,” Kaplan said. “We won’t have enough therapeutic agents. We won’t have enough clinicians. And that is a very dangerous precipice on which we are currently balanced.”
Dr. Jess Mandel, Chief of Pulmonary and Critical Care at UC San Diego, is also worried about the inventory of staff, not stuff.
“In the first wave, a lot of our focus was on ventilators, and are we going to have enough ventilators?" Dr. Mandel said.
Since then, hospitals have shifted their focus, according to Mandel.
“It’s not as if you can just parachute some ventilators in and be ready to go,” he said. “You need who know how to use them.”
Should COVID-19 cases keep soaring, UC San Diego's plan is to have workers with the most training in ventilators and intensive care lead and help train groups of existing staff, Mandel said.
“We feel very confident in our plan,” he said.
But the best plan, according to Kaplan, isn't inside the ICU. It's at home.
“There’s only so much you can do in the hospital,” he said. “You need to keep people from coming in in the first place.”
Bottom line: Wear a mask. Wash your hands. Social distance.