New York City, already the epicenter of the coronavirus crisis inside the United States, is still days, if not weeks, from the peak of the outbreak there. The head of the city's hospital system says it has enough ventilators and protective equipment to survive through the end of the month. After that, New York will need massive help, and fast.
"We have enough to get through the rest of March," Dr. Mitchell Katz, the head of NYC Health + Hospitals, which runs the city's public hospitals, told NPR on Friday. "But to keep going, we're going to need massive infusions of protective equipment and ventilators from the federal government and other providers."
By Friday morning, New York City had reported 25,573 cases of COVID-19 and 366 deaths. As cases continue to climb, so do fears that the nation's largest public health care system is approaching a breaking point. One of the system's hospitals, Elmhurst Hospital Center in Queens, has drawn attention this week following a New York Times report in which staff described the situation as "apocalyptic" and said the facility had come close to running out of ventilators multiple times.
Katz said that for now, New York has "enough protective equipment" for doctors and nurses, and "every time someone in one of our public hospitals has needed a ventilator, we have a ventilator." But sustaining the rapidly accelerating demand for care has meant constantly moving equipment around from facility to facility, he said.
"We're certainly aware that we do not have enough to get through the next several weeks," said Katz.
His warnings echo those of the state's governor, Andrew Cuomo, who criticized the federal response this week as insufficient. "FEMA says, 'We're sending 400 ventilators.' Really? What am I going to do with 400 ventilators, when I need 30,000?" Cuomo said.
Katz praised the city's doctors and nurses, saying they "are heroically responding to this pandemic." He said their "greatest need" remains ventilators and additional staffing, before adding, "there may come a time when we also need space."
Asked if he feared reaching a point where hospitals would have to turn patients away, Katz said "it's a terrible thing to talk about."
"I think we have to say that we're the United States, that we have tremendous capabilities, that there are a number of creative solutions," said Katz. "I think that the whole discussion of who lives, who dies is a terrible mistake because it buys into the idea that we can't provide all of the services that we need. Why should we give up that way?"
Given the resources that exist in the country, he added, "that decision doesn't have to be made if we keep acting correctly."