ALBANY — College dormitories, former nursing homes and other buildings could be converted into medical facilities to help treat the wave of novel coronavirus infections expected to hit New York’s hospital system in coming weeks and months.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo on Monday called on local governments to identify existing buildings that could most easily be renovated to handle the thousands of additional beds needed to treat New Yorkers infected by COVID-19, as well as other unrelated medical conditions.
The plan includes deploying the National Guard, as well as partnering with private developers and construction unions to complete the emergency project.
It would create an additional 2,000 beds in Westchester County alone. New York City would need another 5,000 beds and Long Island needs 2,000 beds based on the current rate of infections in New York and prior outbreaks in China, South Korea and Italy, Cuomo said.
Without adding new beds at temporary facilities, New York state’s existing hospital capacity cannot handle the projected surge in COVID-19 patients, he said.
“The wave is going to break, and the wave is going to break on the hospital system,” Cuomo said.
The hospital emergency plan came as New York, New Jersey and Connecticut raced to contain the virus by banning social and recreational gatherings of more than 50 people, effective 8 p.m. Monday. New York also moved to close all public schools.
"Our main priority right now is reducing the rate of spread of this virus so it can be managed by our healthcare system," Cuomo said, calling it an unprecedented public-health battle.
Meanwhile, Cuomo continued to urge the federal government to deploy the Army Corps of Engineers and other resources to build temporary hospital facilities in New York and other states to address the expected COVID-19 surge.
Cuomo described the state’s new push to renovate existing buildings as a backup plan if the federal government fails to act, offering a dire warning of the potential consequences if New York hospitals get overwhelmed.
“You have people on gurneys in hallways; that is what is going to happen now if we do nothing,” Cuomo said.
How New York plans to handle COVID-19 surge
An international run on medical equipment is also complicating efforts to boost hospital capacity, Cuomo said.
He cited mounting concerns about coronavirus cases prompting shortages in Intensive Care Unit beds, which require ventilators that aid patient breathing.
“It is very, very hard to get medical equipment now because everybody on the globe is trying to buy the same medical equipment,” Cuomo said.
Some potential solutions being called for nationally include the federal government tapping into wartime medical equipment reserves and ramping up domestic production.
Yet the state government’s hospital bed expansion plans in part still require additional financial assistance from the federal government, Cuomo said.
“We don’t have the billions of dollars that you would need to implement an immediate emergency hospital construction program,” Cuomo said.
Other aspects of the emergency plan include potentially canceling elective surgeries statewide, which Cuomo said would free up 25% to 30% of the state’s 53,000 hospital beds.
Hospitals should start planning to cancel elective surgeries in the future, Cuomo said.
Some hospitals voluntarily made the move on Monday, including St. James Hospital in Hornell.
The Long Island-based Northwell Health system, which includes 23 hospitals, mostly in the greater New York City area, did the same.
Elective surgeries, endoscopies and other invasive procedures in the health system’s outpatient settings will continue to be performed when deemed clinically necessary, Northwell officials said in a statement.
If considered non-essential, the elective cases will be postponed or canceled to minimize COVID-19 exposure to patients and staff, they added.
“With appropriate screening of patients and when deemed clinically necessary, some planned cases will continue to be performed,” said Northwell Chief Medical Officer Dr. David Battinelli.
“Patient care that may appear routine could, if canceled, result in significant negative impact on our patients’ health,” he added.
The new approach will apply to surgeries and procedures scheduled through April 15, Northwell said.
The state Department of Health is also suspending regulations to allow existing hospitals to increase space and capacity, such as expanding the number of beds allowed per room, Cuomo said Monday.
Hospital officials would make the changes based on their specific policies and infection control practices, he added.
Why national shortage of hospital beds feared amid COVID-19 outbreak
New York is not alone as no state in the U.S. will have enough room to treat novel coronavirus patients if the surge in severe cases here mirrors that in other countries.
A USA TODAY analysis shows that if the nation sees a major spike, there could be almost six seriously ill patients for every existing hospital bed.
That analysis, based on data from the American Hospital Association, U.S. Census, CDC and World Health Organization, is conservative. For example, it assumes all 790,000 beds will be empty.
Since two thirds are not, the reality could be far worse: about 17 people competing for each open bed.
“Unless we are able to implement dramatic isolation measures like some places in China, we’ll be presented with overwhelming numbers of coronavirus patients – two to 10 times as we see at peak influenza times,” said Dr. James Lawler, who researches emerging diseases at the University of Nebraska Medical Center and the Global Center for Health Security.