April 7, 2020 — As the coronavirus pandemic stretches on, many of the concerns voiced months ago are starting to be realized. Personal protective equipment for health care workers is in short supply. And some places are seeing their hospital capacity pushed to the limit.
Officials at rural hospitals are also worried. They operate on a tight budget, and with elective procedures on hold, there are very real financial concerns.
U.S. Rep. Kim Schrier, D-Sammamish, is co-sponsoring a bill that would offer some relief, including an extra $1,000 federal payment to rural hospitals per patient per day, extra Medicare payments to incentivize freeing up space, and low-interest loans from the Small Business Administration.
Schrier is a medical doctor — one of 17 in Congress, and the only one from Washington state. She spoke to KNKX All Things Considered host Ed Ronco about the rural hospital relief bill and the pandemic.
On rural hospitals: “Kittitas Valley Hospital, for example: They are a very well-situated, well-equipped hospital, but always operating very close to budget. Here what they’ve done is the responsible thing — they’ve canceled elective procedures. They’re basically waiting for this to hit. Right now they have no revenue coming in. They’re anticipating a deluge, not sure when it will come, they have ventilators at the ready, but they are short on things like personal protective equipment. If there is a surge it’s even harder in so many ways for a rural hospital to cope than it would be for a Harborview to cope. Overflow from Harborview can go to Swedish or Virginia Mason. If you are a rural hospital, it is all on your shoulders. That makes it particularly challenging economically and from a public health standpoint.”
On where we go from here: “What I think we will need is the ability to test, (and to) isolate patients who test positive and everybody who has been in contact with them. It won’t be 100 percent effective. But it will allow much of our community to get back to near normalcy while protecting vulnerable people and protecting our community. We’re going to be living with a bit of a touch-and-go low level of spread that our health care system can handle, but we really need testing to be the base of that.”
On facing a possible second wave of infections this fall: “I think we will be smarter and we’ll know what the threats are and how quickly this spreads. … We are much better equipped now and we will be smarter, and we have to be. What I heard — and even without perfect testing and real knowledge here — is the estimate is that only about 2 percent of Washington’s population will be immune to this virus around June 1. We are essentially just as naked now as we were before. As we tiptoe back toward anything close to our normal lives, we’re going to have to take really extreme precautions to avoid a devastating second wave, like we’re seeing in other countries.”