Houston Methodist Hospital President and CEO Discusses Local COVID-19 Protocols, Preparedness
Asia Society at Home
HOUSTON, April 3, 2020 — Asia Society Texas Center (ASTC) launched a series of online programs exploring the COVID-19 pandemic through different topics.
In the first webcast on April 2, which focused on Houston’s medical community, Dr. Marc Boom, President and CEO of Houston Methodist, joined ASTC board member Marty Goossen to discuss how the Texas Medical Center has been preparing to handle the novel coronavirus and the everyday realities for local healthcare institutions and the front-line professionals who are battling against COVID-19. Audience questions were welcome throughout the webcast, and Dr. Boom took time to address a number of them during the conversation.
Dr. Boom set the scene by noting the difference between the name of the virus (SARS-CoV-2) and the name of the disease (COVID-19), and providing background on the disease. He explained that while COVID-19 is less lethal than other respiratory diseases such as MERS, it spreads more quickly due to individuals being infectious even while asymptomatic. As such, he noted that while reported cases of COVID-19 has topped 1 million worldwide, as of April 2, it remains difficult to know the total number of cases.
Dr. Boom was careful to emphasize that much remains unknown due to COVID-19 being a new disease. For example, he said, there are no guarantees that the virus would be affected by summer heat the same way the seasonal flu is. Scientists also continue studying whether recovered patients have immunity from becoming reinfected, and how long that immunity lasts.
How is Houston affected? Are we sufficiently prepared?
Dr. Boom noted that community spread became apparent in the greater Houston region around March 11 – 12 and that, by April 2, nearly 1,500 cases in the region had been confirmed, with approximately a 1 percent mortality rate. He expressed cautious optimism about Houston’s prospects. Benefiting from lessons learned in Italy and New York City, the Texas Medical Center had the opportunity to act early by first encouraging local officials to enact stay-at-home orders and promote social distancing. Another proactive step was to pause elective, non-emergency procedures in order to increase capacity for handling COVID-19 cases.
Addressing concerns raised by news coverage across the country of healthcare workers lacking personal protective equipment (PPE), Dr. Boom reassured the audience that Houston has a good supply of key items for another few weeks, with additional shipments on the way. He spoke of the partnership with the local and state governments, and indicated coordination with FEMA as well. He also acknowledged the stress that front-line healthcare workers were dealing with, underlining that this is an uncertain time for all and emphasizing the need to take care of mental and emotional well-being.
What should the public be doing?
The best way the public can support healthcare professionals, according to Dr. Boom, is to follow social distancing guidelines and stay-at-home orders to help prevent hospitals from becoming overwhelmed. In his estimation, the impact of current social distancing efforts on the curve of regional COVID-19 cases will be seen in the next 7 to 10 days.
With the CDC potentially revising guidelines regarding masks, Dr. Boom responded there is insufficient data to support that wearing masks will protect the wearer from the spread of COVID-19. However, he said masks could be effective in helping prevent the spread to others, particularly if the wearer might be an asymptomatic carrier of the virus.
Is there a vaccine?
According to Dr. Boom, a coronavirus vaccine is unlikely to be ready for another 12-18 months, since the processes of establishing a vaccine’s safety, efficacy, and dosing are complex and time-consuming. Meanwhile, he shared that Houston Methodist became the first in the country to perform a plasma transfusion from a recovered COVID-19 patient on March 28 after FDA approval. It is theoretically promising as a method of passing on antibodies from a patient now believed to be immune to a sick patient, but he again cautioned that the new process needs to be evaluated for safety and efficacy.
Dr. Boom also discussed the current testing for COVID-19 (the PCR test, or the nasopharyngeal swab), noting that while it is quite sensitive, it does not serve as a screening test due to the lack of mass testing capability. He said a blood test — which would test for antibodies of those who had recovered from COVID-19 — will eventually be developed and administered, which will show more definitively how broadly the disease has spread.
What does the future look like? When can we return to normal?
Dr. Boom anticipated that social distancing practices — keeping 6 feet from others, avoiding large public gatherings, washing hands, and potentially wearing masks to prevent asymptomatic spread — could continue for months, even if stay-at-home orders are lifted. In his opinion, reopening society and the economy too soon would create a high risk of continuing the spread of COVID-19 and increasing cases that would require hospitalization and ICU care. He strongly recommended getting to the other side of the curve, which requires collaboration among the government, public, and medical community.
“We’re all in this together,” he said.
Dr. Boom provided the below slide deck reviewing COVID-19 data and preparedness across the nation and in Houston. This material, provided on April 3, 2020, is for informational purposes only.
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