A Scripps Health medical team. Photo courtesy of Scripps

I have been in healthcare now for more than 40 years and have always been proud of my profession and community service but I have to admit, I have never been prouder to be both in health care and law enforcement than I am today.

For healthcare providers — the physicians, nurses, technicians and support teams — the COVID-19 pandemic is their 9-11. It’s their Pearl Harbor.  For the first responders, this is a new kind of 9/11.  But whatever the cause, the first responders are still running in while others run out. This time, though, they are joined by our committed health care providers.

I’m also proud of how our hospitals and health care systems have come together — as they always do in times of disaster — to work together for the good of community.  Today in San Diego County, patients are being cared for by a healthcare community — not a group of independent hospitals and health systems. And that healthcare community is working hand-in-glove with our elected officials and county public health.

I want to extend thanks to these officials for listening to healthcare leaders several weeks ago when we asked to shut down much of San Diego County to flatten the curve.  We asked for that so as not to overwhelm the healthcare system as we have seen elsewhere in Asia, Europe and even parts of the United States.  And — cautiously speaking — it appears we have been successful so far. Those difficult decisions and the support of our community — businesses and citizens alike — have saved lives and countless heartbreak.

But now I hear talk of easing those restrictions and I’m concerned once again for several reasons.

There are  troubling stories coming out of Baja, Mexico, that indicate that our neighbors to the south have not been as successful as we have been in flattening the COVID curve, and we know that many people still cross the border every day for economic and personal reasons. Scripps has many employees who live in Mexico and we are concerned for them. This could be an issue for a border community like San Diego.

We know human behavior. Once we start to ease restrictions, people will start to interface more in public and we could very likely see another spike in patients — thus making the success to date a moot point and a wasted effort.

And we still do not have the medical supplies necessary to treat patients in a surge, nor do we have a reliable source of resupply for hospital protective equipment for our staff and physicians.

Chris Van Gorder

So, I propose a trigger to start easing restrictions and reopening businesses. These will be tough decisions, I realize, and ones I don’t have to make.

I learned a long time ago that to win a battle — and this is indeed a healthcare battle — your frontline soldiers must have the supplies and equipment needed to protect themselves and win. Battles are often won by logistics — not just by the soldiers.

So, I propose that the trigger to relax regulations and reopen society be when we are sure that our healthcare providers have all of the personal protective gear they need, along with the ventilators, pharmaceuticals and other supplies required to care for our COVID-19 patients and the other emergency patients we see on a daily basis. This means we should make sure that hospitals, skilled nursing facilities, long-term care facilities and home health agencies, as well as all of our first responders, have what they need to do the job.

COVID-19 is now community spread. It’s not going away anytime soon. If the powers that be reopen society before we are ready, we will see a rebounding of cases and the healthcare providers will be on the front-line of that battle — as they are today. So let’s make sure if we see that spike, that we are ready this time.

Shame on us as a society if we reopen before we can give these heroes that assurance. We can do this and we should do this.

Chris Van Gorder is president and CEO of Scripps Health, which operates five acute-care hospitals and 28 outpatient centers and clinics in San Diego County.

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