I went to see Contagion, the newish Steven Soderbergh film, last night. The story of the film is dreadful – an executive returns from Hong Kong with a new epidemic virus, which kills millions across the world, and threatens to kill a billion people. The virus kills a quarter of those infected, and is highly transmissible. It doesn’t spare kids, medical workers, or epidemiologists, although Matt Damon is immune.
A deadly worldwide epidemic brings out the worst in many (looting, rioting, favoritism, and profiteering), although it brings out the best in others (virologists toiling day and night, and testing a potential vaccine on themselves). A virologist fires the quote above at the Jude Law character, a blogger with terrible teeth who earns millions pitching conspiracy theory and a useless nostrum for the epidemic .
Contagion is scary – an apocalyptic tale where governors seal borders of their states in the vain hope of preventing viral spread, while public health officials in China kidnap World Health Organization officials to gain preferential access to the vaccine for their villages.
I’m reminded by the scrum at the University of Minnesota Hospital about the need for surge capacity within our health care system. As much as we want health care to be “lean,” we also want to have enough hospital beds to care for the unexpected –whether it is natural disaster, terrorist attack, or infectious disease.
It’s hard for hospitals and provider organizations to justify huge disaster preparedness expenditures in tight budgets – and this will get more difficult still as providers face reimbursement cuts in the coming years. We’ll be wise to put most disaster preparedness dollars into public health budgets rather than indepedent institution budgets- which can allow flexibility to set up temporary facilities and even structures wherever they are needed.
The movie shows the heroism of the high-tech virologists who are able to get a vaccine to market in just over 4 months, and the public health officials who quickly convert stadiums into hospitals. Contagion also notes that the best way to save lives is decidedly low tech. Hand sanitizers, quarantines, and keeping more personal distance are critical weapons in the battle against this harrowing new epidemic.