COVID-19: New York's health care system contingency plans

Governor Andrew Cuomo spoke to 60 Minutes about measures he is considering to increase hospital capacity, including building a reserve of health care workers.

Gov. Cuomo on preventing COVID-19 spread

In an effort to prevent the novel coronavirus from overwhelming his state's health care system, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said he is developing contingency plan that could include adapting facilities for medical use and building a reserve of health care workers.

As of Sunday, New York State had the second-highest number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in the country, behind Washington State. In an interview with 60 Minutes, Cuomo expressed concern for his state's hospital capacity if steps aren't taken to reduce the virus's spread and the number of new cases continues to grow rapidly.

"Those people who would require intensive assistance in a hospital wouldn't get the care they need," he told correspondent Scott Pelley. "It's the vulnerable population that might require hospitalization and intensive interventions might not be able to get it. And then we would lose people who we would not need to lose otherwise."

Data on hospital capacity suggests the United States as a whole does not have enough hospital beds to treat those who may become infected. The U.S. has 2.8 hospital beds per 1,000 people, a ratio lower than other countries with serious COVID-19 outbreaks: South Korea has 12.3, China has 4.3, and Italy has 3.2.

To increase capacity in New York, Cuomo said he is looking into modifying existing buildings to be used as backup hospitals for quarantine and low-level care. On Sunday, he called on President Trump to mobilize the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to retrofit public buildings into medical facilities.

New York State currently has 3,000 intensive care unit beds, which state officials say are about 80% occupied. 

But Cuomo told 60 Minutes his larger concern is maintaining an adequate level of staff.

"Health care workers get sick," he said. "Society becomes disrupted to the point where the health care worker has to stay home with the children because the school is closed. Health care workers are afraid to go to work. Health care workers don't have the right protective equipment."

Cuomo said he is currently identifying people who could step in if the system becomes overwhelmed, including retired doctors and nurses who can become recertified, and recent medical school graduates.

For now, his goal is to stay ahead of the virus' spread. In New Rochelle, a COVID-19 hot spot north of New York City, Cuomo has designated a containment zone with a one-mile radius and is dispatching teams of nurses to visit hundreds of homes in an effort to isolate the virus.

In New York City, where Mayor Bill de Blasio on Thursday declared a state of emergency, Cuomo has closed Broadway theaters and all venues with more than 500 seats. Bars and restaurants have been ordered to operate at half capacity.

Other countries with outbreaks have taken more dramatic measures to prevent the spread of the virus. Italy has been under a national quarantine since March 9. Spain on Saturday began a similar lockdown, and citizens have been ordered to stay in their homes with few exceptions. In France, restaurants, bars, cafes, movie theaters, and other "non-indispensable businesses" were ordered to close.

Cuomo said he "can't imagine" New York City facing quarantine restrictions like those in Europe. Instead, he foresees further measures to reduce density, or situations where a large number of people congregate in a close environment.

On Sunday, the governor announced that the New York City's public school system should begin shutting down this week, along with public schools in Long Island and Westchester, which includes New Rochelle.

No matter how taxed hospitals become as the virus continues to spread, Cuomo said he sees this coronavirus as a preview of future strains on the health care system. The U.S., he said, will need to increase testing capability, handle surge capacity, and maintain a reserve of health care workers.

"I think it's going to be a wakeup call for this country," he said.

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