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Prepare for the worst: Baltimore is vulnerable as coronavirus spreads | COMMENTARY

The Baltimore Convention Center has been turned into a field hospital amid a surge of coronavirus cases in the state. The site is now equipped with 250 private beds, bathrooms and hand washing stations.
The Baltimore Convention Center has been turned into a field hospital amid a surge of coronavirus cases in the state. The site is now equipped with 250 private beds, bathrooms and hand washing stations.(Luke Broadwater/Baltimore Sun)

Baltimore has entered the national health care discussion in the worst possible way. Deborah Birx, of the White House coronavirus task force, has identified Baltimore, along with Philadelphia and the District of Columbia, as the next potential coronavirus “hot spots," parts of the country where the epidemic is spreading uncommonly fast. It surely came as no surprise. The numbers have been growing and Charm City has long been regarded at risk in the same way that current hot spots New Orleans, New York and Detroit have already proven themselves — concentrated poverty and large numbers of older people with pre-existing conditions and living in close quarters. If COVID-19 is a possible wildfire, we are sitting on dry tinder.

As much attention as the state and federal preparations for what’s coming next have garnered, this is a war that will ultimately be fought block by block, street by street, neighborhood by neighborhood and not in the White House briefing room or even the halls of the State House. Have Baltimoreans gotten the message about social distancing? Can they recognize the symptoms of the virus? Do they know where to find testing? Where to get medical help? What happens to the homeless when the dry cough shows up and they have no place to turn? To long-term care facilities if staff come down with the disease? Can we even keep accurate data about where the outbreak has hit hardest as the numbers of casualties mount?

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On this subject, there is at least a glimmer of hope. Behind the scenes, Baltimore’s robust non-profit community, along with others in the private sector, have been rallying to buttress the city’s health department for an emergency on a scale that simply has no contemporary equal. This is not about calling in the National Guard. In many ways, it’s about calling in everyone: the Johns Hopkins Health System, the University of Maryland Medical System, CareFirst BlueCross BlueShield, MedStar Health, LifeBridge Health and on and on. Those involved are calling it a public-private partnership and it is unusual in its breadth and ambition because, frankly, it has to be. Turning the Baltimore Convention Center into a coronavirus field hospital, a key step in adding 6,000 hospital beds to the city’s inventory, has already demonstrated that these are not, pardon the expression, conventional times.

If the pandemic is a war, the city’s response must turn on massively scaling up its supply chain. It’s not about heroics, it’s about logistics, it’s about coordination. The work of many is already bearing some fruit — an around-the-clock call center to advise people on health matters and resources and even schedule tests, a communications plan along with a public “dashboard” on the internet to get up-to-the-minute information, and outreach efforts to the “special” population that is most vulnerable such as the homeless who, should they show symptoms, may be eligible for temporary housing and support. These are programs that didn’t exist a few weeks ago. Not even on paper in many cases.

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Will it be enough? We don’t know. It’s impossible to predict with any certainty how bad things are about to get. But we are certain of this: Baltimore’s health department could not possibly have mounted this defense on its own. Nor could any single private institution for that matter. We are grateful to those who have taken on this thankless task of preparing for the worst, for a potentially massive increase in COVID-19 cases and fatalities. Baltimore used to celebrate its “Old Defenders,” a terminology that dates back to the War of 1812. In the coming weeks, we are relying on the city’s new defenders to support the front lines in a battle that has already proven to be far more deadly than any fought at Fort McHenry.

The Baltimore Sun editorial board — made up of Opinion Editor Tricia Bishop, Deputy Editor Andrea K. McDaniels and writer Peter Jensen — offers opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. It is separate from the newsroom.

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