New York City hospitals prep for coronavirus influx

'We're trying to make up for lost time'

New York City has seen the devastation wrought by the coronavirus abroad, and its doctors and hospitals are doing their best to avoid worst-case scenarios by preparing for them as thoroughly as possible.

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New York City Health and Hospitals Corp., operator of the largest municipal hospital system in the country, will begin to cancel nonemergency surgeries to prevent an overload to the healthcare system, and NYU Langone Medical Center’s Tisch Hospital has already converted its pediatric emergency room into an intensive care unit for adults, The New York Times reported.

Northwell Health, a network of hospitals, has asked retired nurses to return to work.

Medical University of South Carolina project manager Amy Jackson adjusts her face mask as healthcare providers prepare to open a drive-through tent for coronavirus testing on Friday, March 13, in Charleston, S.C. (AP Photo/Mic Smith)

Despite the preparation, health experts say their options are limited.

“We are not prepared to deal with a rapid and severe surge of patients — we’re just not,” Dr. Christopher M. Tedeschi, a longtime emergency physician and assistant professor at the Columbia University Medical Center told The New York Times. “We’re sort of planning for what’s going on right now, and we’re trying to make up for lost time, but I’m not sure we’re planning for a month from now, or even two weeks from now.”

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New York State had 421 confirmed coronavirus cases as of Friday -- up 96 in a day. Of those patients, 50 are being treated in hospitals, including 18 in intensive care.

There are roughly 53,000 hospital beds in New York State, including 3,200 intensive-care unit beds, according to the American Hospital Association. About 20,000 of the beds are in NYC, according to the Times, and officials have said there are about 5,000 ventilators in the city. However, many are already being used to keep patients alive.

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New York Mayor Bill de Blasio has predicted 1,000 cases in the city by next week, but some doctors are anticipating many more. The largest question is not how many New Yorkers will get sick during the pandemic but how many at any given time, the Times reported.

It's a dilemma stretching far outside the Big Apple. The World Health Organization says there are fewer hospital beds per capita in the United States than in most other nations -- including hard-hit Italy and China.

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While New York Governor Andrew M. Cuomo and de Blasio have applauded New York's health care system in recent days, both have acknowledged that the outbreak will strain the system in extraordinary ways, the Times reported.

“This is where Italy got into trouble,” Cuomo said on Friday. “They didn’t have enough I.C.U. beds to handle the number of patients who needed intensive care. That is going to be a problem in this state and in this country. That’s something that we have to watch very, very carefully.”

People line up to buy face masks at a cosmetics shop in Hong Kong in January. (AP Photo/Kin Cheung, File)

Some NYC hospital executives, however, told the Times that the city's hospital system could weather the pandemic.

“I believe our health care system can stand up to any challenge,” said Kenneth Raske, president of the Greater New York Hospital Association.

“Wuhan got over it, and they did everything wrong," Katz, the Health and Hospitals official said, referring to the Chinese city where the outbreak initiated. "New York City will come out of this better, certainly better than Wuhan."