New York hospitals told to get ready for coronavirus surge

Hospitals in New York state have been ordered to expand capacity and prepare for staff shortages as public health officials brace for the US’s coronavirus surge to accelerate even faster after the Thanksgiving holiday.

Saying the state was entering “a new phase in the war against Covid”, Governor Andrew Cuomo on Monday announced the hospital measures as part of a five-point plan to try to contain the coronavirus through the winter, until there could be a mass distribution of vaccines — possibly in the spring or summer, he predicted.

If necessary, the state would impose another broad “pause” on all but essential businesses, as it did in the depths of the first wave of the pandemic, he said. In the meantime, Mr Cuomo said he hoped for a more targeted approach guided by increased testing — for instance, allowing New York to keep public schools open as long as infections there remain low. 

Like other US states, New York has seen a resurgence of Covid-19 cases in recent weeks, prompting officials to start reimposing some of the social and business restrictions put into place during the pandemic’s early months in an attempt to contain the spread.

On Sunday, the US reported 134,184 Covid-19 cases and 801 deaths, according to data from the Covid Tracking Project. Over the past week, the country has averaged 158,468 infections and 1,438 fatalities a day. Hospitalisations reached yet another record high of 93,219.

Since the beginning of November, the US has registered more than 4m coronavirus cases — nearly a third of the 13m cases tallied since the virus began circulating. California and Texas — the most populous US states — both surpassed 1m cases this month.

Public officials have been especially alarmed as millions of people travelled by air or road over the past week to celebrate the Thanksgiving holiday, despite warnings that doing so could accelerate the disease’s spread.

The Transportation Security Administration screened 1.18m passengers in US airports on Sunday — the final day of the Thanksgiving holiday weekend — in the busiest travel day since March. However, screenings were still down 59 per cent compared with the same day last year.

In an interview with NBC’s Meet the Press on Sunday, Anthony Fauci, a leading infectious disease expert and member of the White House coronavirus task force, said he expected the US could see a “surge superimposed on the surge that we’re already in” over the coming weeks.

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“It is going to get worse over the next several weeks but the actions we take in the next several days will determine how bad it is,” Jerome Adams, the US surgeon-general, told Fox News Sunday.

While public health restrictions have proved effective at reducing infections in bars and restaurants, small social gatherings in private homes were now the “number one spreader”, according to Mr Cuomo, accounting for 65 per cent of new cases in his state. 

“This is a nationwide problem,” the governor said.

The rising caseload is threatening to again swamp the state’s hospitals, which were strained during the pandemic’s early months. The number of hospitalisations in New York has increased from 891 on June 29 to 3,532 as of Sunday.

“We are now worried about overwhelming the hospital system,” the governor said.

New York hospitals will be required to plan for a 50 per cent increase in beds. They must also contact retired doctors and nurses and begin transferring patients throughout their systems to share the load. Elective surgeries will be cancelled in Erie County, where hospitals are already under pressure, from Friday, and may soon be in other parts of the state, too. 

Mr Cuomo said the state was already suffering a shortage of doctors and nurses. Many are depleted after the first wave of the pandemic.

New York benefited from reinforcements from around the country earlier in the year. That may no longer be possible with cases surging in virtually every region, including less populous states like North and South Dakota.

“That can’t happen when the disease is everywhere. So I don’t know where we’re going to get extra staff from,” said Dr Eric Toner, a senior scholar at Johns Hopkins University, who led an extensive study of New York City’s experience of the pandemic.

Dr Toner said New York and other states would increasingly have to expand the responsibilities of nurses and technicians to cope. “But,” he added, “there are some things you just can’t readily substitute for — particularly, respiratory therapists. You can’t just make a respiratory therapist on the fly.” 

Mr Cuomo predicted that cases would rise in New York at least through to mid-January before stabilising. While the world awaits a vaccine, the governor pledged to learn from the state’s mistakes during the first wave of the pandemic.

“We lived this nightmare, we learned from this nightmare,” he said.

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