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Illustration by Security Management

Coronavirus Pandemic ‘Accelerating at an Exponential Rate,’ Straining Healthcare and Security

U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson tested positive for COVID-19 to close out a week where the number of confirmed cases has risen drastically worldwide, placing increasing pressure on leaders to take action to stop the spread of the coronavirus.

“Over the last 24 hours I have developed mild symptoms and tested positive for coronavirus,” Johnson tweeted. “I am now self-isolating, but I will continue to lead the government’s response via video-conference as we fight this virus. Together we will beat this.”

On Friday, 27 March, The New York Times reported that the United States now leads the world with the most confirmed cases of COVID-19: 85,381. As of 26 March, the World Health Organization (WHO) had confirmed 465,915 cases of COVID-19; most cases were in China (81,961), Italy (74,386), and the United States (63,570).

“The pandemic is accelerating at an exponential rate,” said WHO Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus in a video address to G-20 leaders who were meeting via video conference. “The first 100,000 cases took 67 days. The second 100,000 took 11 days, the third 100,000 took just four days, and the fourth 100,000 just two days.”

Ghebreyesus explained that while the drastic social measures some nations like the United Kingdom, France, Italy, Canada, and India are taking to close schools and businesses and to require people to stay home, they will not be enough to ultimately wipe out the coronavirus.

“We must immediately build, expand, train, and deploy health workers to find, test, isolate, and treat every case and trace every contact,” he said. “This is not an option; it’s an obligation.”

Many nations, however, are struggling to handle current surges in patients and protect healthcare workers while obtaining resources to address future cases. Italy’s healthcare system has been pushed “to the breaking point,” NBC News reports, and New York is preparing to be similarly tested in the weeks to come as the state has the most confirmed cases in the United States.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has taken unprecedented steps to address shortages of personal protective equipment for frontline medical workers and ramp up the creation of ventilators needed to treat patients. But he said the state will need help from the U.S. federal government to meet the need.

“The state cannot do this alone, and the blunt truth is we need more ventilators and healthcare equipment fast, and we need the federal government to actually use the Defense Production Act to get private manufacturers to help build this critical equipment,” Cuomo said in a statement. “I’m not asking the federal government to help New York just to help New York—I’m asking for everyone.”

This week in New York City, Kious Kelly—an assistant nurse manager at Mount Sinai West—became the first known nurse in the United States to die from the disease. Some of his colleagues took to social media to say that Kelly’s death could have been prevented if the hospital had an adequate supply of protective clothing and masks.

“A nurse who worked with Mr. Kelly said the hospital had offered nurses one plastic protective gown for an entire shift, though normal protocol required a change of gowns between interactions with infected patients,” according to the Times. “The nurse, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the staff member was not authorized to speak to the media, said Mr. Kelly had not used protective equipment, even though he regularly helped nurses on his team with hands-on care.”

The WHO previously said that an ongoing shortage of personal protective equipment, like gloves, medical masks, respirators, goggles, face shields, and gowns, are placing frontline healthcare workers at risk.

“Without secure supply chains, the risk to healthcare workers around the world is real,” Ghebreyesus said. “Industry and governments must act quickly to boost supply, ease export restrictions, and put measures in place to stop speculation and hoarding. We can’t stop COVID-19 without protecting health workers first.”

The pandemic is also placing new strains on security staff, often considered essential personnel who are in high demand to monitor facilities and provide support to services—like healthcare and financial institutions—that must remain open.

Security firms are seeing requests for officers to help conduct screening measures before individuals are allowed into a facility, such as taking a person’s temperature, which has become common practice in China to allow businesses to reopen.

“Since the office reopened in February, workers enter in shifts staggered to minimize potential exposure,” according to a WIRED analysis of how the offices of Chinese ecommerce and food delivery business Meituan Dianping have reopened. “Infrared cameras and security staff check temperatures as they arrive, and their workspaces are decontaminated three times per day. Workers must wear masks at all times and are required to complete a daily health questionnaire. No more than six people are allowed in elevators; tape on the floor shows where to stand. Face-to-face meetings are discouraged, and people eat alone in the cafeteria using a cardboard ‘face shield’ to minimize risk when a face mask is removed.”

Some contract firms say implementing these measures places guards at risk, and they will not allow officers to participate.

“We choose not to be a part of that process. We’re not going to randomly expose our officers like that,” Don Saban, COO of Phoenix-based firm Anderson Security Agency, told Security Management. “This is a pandemic; this is not about checking IDs at the door to see if you’re 21. This is something that involved people’s health. We’d have to step away that offer.”

Concerns about the exposure of security staff to the virus are well founded. The U.S. Transportation Security Administration (TSA) confirmed that as of 27 March, 46 of its screening officers had tested positive for COVID-19, along with five non-screening employees.

“TSA is working with the [U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Preparedness] and state and local health departments to monitor local situations, as well as the health and safety of our employees and the traveling public,” the TSA said in a statement. “Impacted security checkpoints may close as needed, so you may be redirected to other security screening checkpoints at the airport.”

Additional resources for organizations responding to the coronavirus pandemic are available on the ASIS International Disease Outbreak: Security Resources page.