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The Coronavirus Crisis Demands Harvard’s Leadership

By Philip N. Warburg
Philip N. Warburg ’77 is a graduate of Harvard College and Harvard Law School.

“At times like this the world looks to Harvard for leadership, intellectual and otherwise,” wrote University President Lawrence S. Bacow last week in his “Dear Colleagues” letter about the University’s response to the coronavirus crisis. While he mentioned that Harvard’s dorms have been all but emptied, he said nothing about deploying those dorms as a life-saving resource for new coronavirus patients.

Sadly, President Bacow just wrote once again to the Harvard community, this time to report that he and his wife Adele have tested positive for COVID-19. This upsetting news brings into yet higher relief the immediacy of the threat posed by this highly contagious virus.

Tufts has already announced its readiness to house patients afflicted by the new coronavirus. Middlebury College has done the same. So far, Harvard has remained silent.

According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the United States has 2.8 hospital beds per 1,000 inhabitants – substantially fewer than the 3.2 beds per 1,000 in Italy’s overwhelmed hospital system. We all know the deadly results of that country’s lack of coronavirus preparedness. South Korea has more than four times as many beds per capita as the U.S. — one of a number of factors contributing to that country’s superior preparedness.

We will need 200,000 intensive care unit beds to cope with a moderate coronavirus outbreak, according to Professor Aaron E. Carroll at the Indiana University School of Medicine. Hundreds of thousands and possibly millions more will be needed in the likely event that the virus becomes more pervasive. Today we have 45,000 ICU beds, most of them already occupied by currently sick patients. We need to fill an enormous gap in weeks, not months or years. Repurposing our now-vacant dormitories as hospital wards is one key way to begin. Some dorms, due to their configuration, might best be deployed in caring for non-ICU patients, freeing up in-hospital capacity for patients who are more gravely ill. Healthcare workers who are in close contact with COVID-19 patients might also need temporary housing to spare their families unnecessary exposure to the disease. Other dorms might be relatively well-suited to patients needing intensive care. Determining these resource allocations should be assigned to smart, experienced healthcare professionals.

However Harvard’s dorm beds and related food services are used, they must be made available now. President Bacow must show courage and leadership in stepping up to this challenge.

Some might say, “Why not deploy hotels as COVID-19 care facilities?” This, in fact, is now being negotiated by officials in New York City, which is also making plans to turn the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center into a coronavirus hospital. Rooms in now-empty hotels, together with currently idled hotel kitchens, can offer invaluable healthcare services if promptly deployed. In the face of this urgent humanitarian need, we must deploy all available resources.

Making hundreds of thousands of beds available to COVID-19 and other patients is essential — but of course, it will not address other grave deficiencies in our ability to combat this pandemic. In the U.K., Vauxhall and Airbus are gearing up to manufacture ventilator components using 3D printers. Prime Minister Boris Johnson has challenged these and other manufacturers to help produce 20,000 ventilators in the next two weeks. To date, no parallel action has been taken here in the U.S.

Along with the shortfall in ventilators, we’re all aware of the shocking scarcity of protective gear for healthcare workers who are already placing themselves at enormous risk in treating coronavirus patients. On March 20, after weeks of delay, President Trump invoked the Defense Production Act, giving the federal government authority to compel U.S. manufacturers to produce equipment essential to fighting this dread disease. No sooner had he done so, however, than he began backpedaling on mandating the immediate retooling by textile companies, medical equipment manufacturers, and others that could begin to fill the desperate shortfall in life-saving ventilators and vital safety equipment such as masks, gowns, and gloves. His weak excuse in this moment of dire need: “The concept of nationalizing our businesses is not a good concept.”

Requisitioning the hospital beds needed to care for COVID-19 patients is another step the federal government should be taking. But Harvard should not wait before taking its own decisive action. It should immediately collaborate with partners in government and the healthcare sector to make sure its facilities are fully tapped.

President Bacow ended his letter to Harvard colleagues with the Talmudic saying that saving one life is equivalent to saving the entire world. Harvard has a historic opportunity to save hundreds if not thousands of lives. It must not walk away from this challenge.

Philip N. Warburg ’77 is a graduate of Harvard College and Harvard Law School.

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