Providence St. Joseph Health considers treating patients in tents

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The hospital chain that cared for the first coronavirus patient in the U.S. is considering treating a potential crush of new patients in temporary arrangements, its CEO told CNBC on Wednesday.

“We’re already looking at how we use our ICU beds, how can we use alternative areas of care, including setting up tents outside of our hospitals,” Rod Hochman, CEO of Providence St. Joseph Health, said on CNBC’s “Squawk on the Street.” “We’re trying to stay way in front of this as we see a wave of patients potentially coming forward.”

Providence St. Joseph Health, which operates 51 hospitals across seven states, treated the first COVID-19 patient in the U.S. in January, a 35-year-old man from Snohomish County in Washington state.

“We’re already going through the process of looking where we have capacity, what we need to do, and what do we have to do in front of it,” Hochman said.

Most of Providence’s hospitals are along the West Coast, which is particularly hard hit by the virus. In California and Washington state, the virus has infected more than 430 people, according to Johns Hopkins University. That’s nearly half of all U.S. cases.

Washington state, where the chain is headquartered, is the hardest-hit state in the U.S. There are more than 273 confirmed cases across the state and 23 deaths. Gov. Jay Inslee, who is scheduled to speak later Wednesday, declared a state of emergency last month over the outbreak. 

Seattle-area officials announced Tuesday that the coronavirus has infected residents or employees of 10 long-term care facilities. So far, at least 19 of the deaths in the U.S. are tied to one such facility: The Life Care residential home in Kirkland, Washington.

The true spread of the virus across the country remains unknown, Hochman said, because of limited capacity to test for the virus. The tests were initially marred by quality control issues, delaying testing for Americans who were or thought they were infected and prompting some states such as New York to seek emergency approval to use their own test kits.

“The more people we can test, the more we’ll know about how this virus spreads,” Hochman said. Asked about the number of test kits available right now in Washington, he said, “Not enough. Not even close to enough.”

If health officials and the public aren’t able to contain the outbreak now, Inslee said Tuesday, Washington state COVID-19 cases could reach 64,000 by May. “If you do that math, it gets very disturbing,” he added.

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