UW Health on Thursday started canceling some nonessential clinic appointments because of the COVID-19 outbreak, and leaders said UW Hospital is already near capacity in part because of a serious flu season.

A surge of severe COVID-19 cases could max out ventilators and isolation rooms, but alternative measures could help people breathe, such as anesthesia machines, bagging devices and high-flow oxygen therapy, said Dr. Nasia Safdar, medical director of infection control at UW Health.

“I’m worried too about the fact that maybe this will exceed all our preparedness and all our expectations,” Safdar said.

UW Hospital is about 90% full, said Dr. Peter Newcomer, chief medical officer for UW Health. Some regular rooms can be upgraded to intensive care rooms if needed. But the public can help prevent a sudden swell of COVID-19 cases by practicing good hygiene and avoiding crowds, Newcomer said.

“That’s everyone’s responsibility,” he said. “It’s not just the health care system’s responsibility.”

Non-essential procedures may eventually need to be postponed, and telehealth consultations may be used more, Newcomer said.

Safdar said a large outbreak of COVID-19 could impact staffing levels. “Given the ease of transmission from person to person, we do expect that a substantial proportion of the workforce will be out,” she said.

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