Doctors and patients sit and talk. At the table near the window in the hospital.

When and How to Resume Non-Urgent Care During COVID-19

By Louise P. King, MD, JD and Sigal Klipstein, MD

In recent days, we have seen our efforts at physical distancing flatten curves to mesas and begun to discuss re-opening for “elective” –- more commonly referred to as non-urgent -– medical care.

At some fundamental level, almost all care is essential to the individual seeking it, just as all lives have intrinsic value. The question then is not what is “essential,” because in trying to create such a list we will invariably wish to include so many conditions that we will list much of the breadth of medicine.

Instead, the question must be: can we accommodate non-emergent/non-urgent care safely or not, and if yes, which care do we address first as we re-open? While we cannot address all the issues raised by these questions in this short piece, we will highlight some considerations below.

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NHS building

Obtaining a Hospital Bed in the COVID-19 Pandemic: A Legal Perspective

By John Tingle

The recently reported case of University College London Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust v MB [2020] EWHC 882 captures well the value of English common case law in resolving complex health care disputes within the context of the COVID-19 pandemic and more generally.

Mr Justice Chamberlain in the Queen’s Bench Division of the High Court of Justice ruled recently that a patient, known as MB, who had occupied an NHS bed for over a year, must vacate it and instead receive care in the community. Her room could be required urgently by COVID-19 patients and there would be an increased risk of MB contracting COVID-19 if she remained in hospital.

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WASHINGTON MAY 21: Pro-choice activists rally to stop states’ abortion bans in front of the Supreme Court in Washington, DC on May 21, 2019.

The Harms of Abortion Restrictions During the COVID-19 Pandemic

By Beatrice Brown

Several states, including Texas, Ohio, and Alabama, have dangerously and incorrectly deemed abortions a non-essential or elective procedure during the COVID-19 pandemic. The stated reason for these orders is to conserve personal protective equipment (PPE), a scarce, important resource for protecting health care workers treating COVID-19 patients.

However, these policies restricting abortion are unlikely to conserve PPE, and more importantly, they mischaracterize the nature and importance of abortions.

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mask, gloves, goggles.

Are Clinicians Without PPE Morally Obligated to Care for COVID-19 Patients?

By Beatrice Brown

There is currently a dire shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE) at hospitals across the United States, especially in areas that have been hit the hardest by COVID-19.

PPE is essential to protecting those on the front lines of the pandemic – the President of the American Medical Association (AMA) has said that without adequate PPE, we may face a shortage of clinicians to treat COVID-19 patients, in addition to other shortages of critical resources.

Without adequate PPE, are clinicians morally obligated to provide care to patients who are either presumed positive for COVID-19 or who definitely have the virus?

Here, I argue that to treat patients without adequate PPE is supererogatory but not obligatory. In other words, this is a noble and praiseworthy act, but clinicians should not be obligated to perform these heroic acts, nor should we blame them, morally, for their decision to refuse to provide care.

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empty hospital bed

Disability and Rationing of Care amid COVID-19

By Katrina N. Jirik, PhD

As health care resources grow increasingly scarce amid the COVID-19 pandemic, states, hospitals, and individuals are forced to make tough decisions about the rationing of care. These decisions are often framed in terms of medical and/or legal criteria. However, many people, especially the physicians who make the difficult decisions, realize they have a huge moral component related to perceptions of the value of an individual’s life.

Various states have triage guidelines in place, which differ somewhat, but primarily reflect a utilitarian goal of saving the most people with the least expenditure of finite resources. This is where the societal issue of the value of the life of a person with a disability comes into play.

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hospital equipment

How Triage During COVID-19 Can be Fair to Patients with Disabilities

By Govind Persad

On March 28, 2020, the Department of Health and Human Services issued guidance regarding the application of antidiscrimination law to triage policies — that is, policies for fairly allocating scarce medical treatments, like ventilators, in the COVID-19 pandemic.

Many news outlets incorrectly portrayed HHS as prohibiting triage guidelines from considering disability. But the guidance is more nuanced.

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corridor with hospital beds

3 Human Rights Imperatives for Rationing Care in the Time of Coronavirus

By Alicia Ely Yamin and Ole F. Norheim

Scholarly and official statements and publications regarding human rights during the current pandemic have largely reiterated the important lessons learned from HIV/AIDS, Zika and Ebola, such as: engagement with affected communities; combatting stigma and discrimination; ensuring access for the most vulnerable; accounting for gendered effects; and limiting rights restrictions in the name of public health.

But there is a notable silence as to one of the most critical decisions that almost every society will face during the COVID-19 pandemic: rationing scarce health care resources and access to care.

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hospital equipment, including heart rate monitor and oxygen monitor functioning at bedside.

The Ethical Allocation of Scarce Resources in the US During the COVID-19 Pandemic: The Role of Bioethics

By Beatrice Brown

Critical resources for handling the COVID-19 pandemic, including ventilators and ICU beds, are quickly becoming scarce in the US as the number and density of infections continue to rise. Leading bioethicists have crafted guidelines for the ethical rationing of these scarce resources during the pandemic. On March 16, The Hastings Center published “Ethical Framework for Health Care Institutions and Guidelines for Institutional Ethics Services Responding to the Novel Coronavirus Pandemic,” detailing three ethical duties for health care leaders: 1) duty to plan; 2) duty to safeguard; and 3) duty to guide. The report also contains a compilation of materials on resource and ventilator allocation.

More recently, on March 23, two insightful pieces were published in the New England Journal of Medicine: “The Toughest Triage — Allocating Ventilators in a Pandemic” by Truog, Mitchell, and Daley, and “Fair Allocation of Scarce Medical Resources in the Time of Covid-19” by Emanuel et al. These two pieces complement each other well and lay a crucial foundation for the inevitable resource allocation that clinicians and hospitals will be forced to practice in the coming weeks. As such, here, I summarize the central takeaways from these two articles while understanding their recommendations in tandem, as well as reflect on the importance of bioethics during these times of medical crisis and how the work of this field must adapt to changing circumstances. Read More

a crowd of people shuffling through a sidewalk

Lost in the Shuffle: The Impact of COVID-19 on Immigrants in Need

The recommendations for healthy people who have symptoms consistent with COVID-19, the illness caused by the corona virus called SARS-Co-V2, is to stay at home, get plenty of rest, drink fluids and control fever and body-aches with a non-steroidal medication. For people with pre-existing medical conditions, the elderly or those with more serious symptoms, an evaluation by a healthcare provider is warranted. This is a reasonable recommendation given that for most healthy people, the symptoms are uncomfortable but not life-threatening. There is a population however, that regardless of the severity of their illness, may stay at home and not seek medical care, even when things are serious. Fear of arrest and deportation is a real issue for undocumented immigrants and calling an ambulance or going to a hospital can put them at risk for these actions. The result is that some very sick people may not seek appropriate medical care. In addition, they may be taken care of by people that don’t have the appropriate personal protection, putting even more people at risk.

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Ambassador-at-Large Deborah Birx giving a speech from a podium with an American flag and PEPFAR banner in the background

One of the Biggest Public Health Initiatives in History: PEPFAR and HIV

By Daniel Aaron

In October, the Petrie-Flom Center hosted a conference of world-leading experts in HIV/AIDS to discuss one of the biggest public health successes in history: PEPFAR, the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief. PEPFAR was launched in 2003 in response to a burgeoning global epidemic of HIV. The program offered $2 billion annually, rising to about $7 billion in 2019, to surveil, diagnose, treat, and reduce transmission of HIV around the world.

PEPFAR prevented what could have become an exponentially growing epidemic. It is estimated to have saved more than 17 million lives and avoided millions of new HIV infections. As a result, the speakers at the conference were quick to extol the virtues of the program. Professor Ashish Jha called it an “unmitigated success”; Professor Marc C. Elliott named it a “historic effort”; Dr. Ingrid Katz described PEPFAR as “nothing short of miraculous.”

However, several undercurrents within the conference, as well as more explicit points made by several panelists, suggested the importance of enlarging the discussion beyond PEPFAR itself to include other policies that impact HIV and AIDS, and even other diseases.

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