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Mass General president: We should be in ‘war-like’ preparations to combat coronavirus

Dr. Peter Slavin, President of Mass General Hospital.
Dr. Peter Slavin, President of Mass General Hospital.Barry Chin

The president of Massachusetts General Hospital on Sunday compared the coronavirus crisis to a time of war and said he’s worried about the shortage of personal protective equipment needed to keep doctors and nurses safe as they confront rising numbers of infected patients.

“We need to think of this in almost a war-like stance,” Dr. Peter Slavin said on NBC’s Meet the Press.

“Even before the most significant battles [that] lie ahead, our supplies are low," he said of the protective gear. "We wouldn’t want to send soldiers into war without helmets and armor. We don’t want to do the same with our health care workers.”

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Slavin called for the federal government to launch “a Manhattan Project” to accelerate the production of new masks, eye protection, gowns, and gloves that health care workers must wear to guard against the contagious coronavirus.

On Saturday, Mass General told workers to begin reusing N95 respirators, the precious masks that protect against infection. They are in short supply.

Ed Raeke, director of materials management at Mass General, said he will learn Tuesday if the hospital can expect a new shipment of masks on Friday. In the meantime, the number of patients who show up with signs of coronavirus could soar.

“To go to reuse I think is a prudent step, but it shows you we are not comfortable right now,” he said in an interview.

Slavin, in his television appearance, said he’s also concerned about the slow pace of testing patients for the virus and noted that Mass General began doing its own tests on Saturday, after the US Food and Drug Administration relaxed its regulations.

Hospital officials later clarified that they’re able to process just 18 tests a day and hope to double that number soon, while sending many more tests to the state public health lab. Private labs also have been approved to conduct tests.

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Mass General, the largest hospital in the region, has begun canceling elective surgeries and is urging staff who are able to stay home to do so, to promote social distancing. Other hospitals are taking similar steps to reduce the spread of infection and prepare for a potential surge in sick patients.

Health experts believe that limiting social interactions could slow the spread of the virus and allow hospitals to better respond to patients who need critical care.

“We think the next week or two are going to be critical,” Slavin said. “We’ve begun to see cases in this area, but we expect them to rise dramatically in the coming weeks.”

Like Slavin, US Senator Edward J. Markey on Sunday also compared the current crisis to war and called for “a massive wartime manufacturing mobilization” to increase production of protective equipment and medical supplies.



Priyanka Dayal McCluskey can be reached at priyanka.mccluskey@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @priyanka_dayal.