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New York's Temporary Overflow Hospitals Remain Underused Despite COVID-19 Crisis


New York City announced its largest single-day death toll today - 731 people in the city died of COVID-19 on Monday. Many hospitals there are full. There are two temporary hospitals up and running to help with the overcrowding. The Javits Convention Center and the Comfort, a Navy hospital ship. Between them, they have more than 2,000 beds, but only about a hundred patients are currently being treated there.

NPR's Rebecca Hersher is here to break down why that is and how it might change in the coming days.

Hi, Becky.


SHAPIRO: It's a staggering number - 2,000 beds but only 100 are full. What's going on here?

HERSHER: Yeah. There are a few reasons for what's happening. So one thing to remember is that the ship and the convention center are kind of two pieces of one puzzle. The ship, it's a floating hospital. It has everything a normal hospital has - ICU beds, isolation rooms, X-ray machines. It can treat really sick people. But up until today, the Department of Defense wasn't allowing patients with known COVID-19 to be admitted. That is changing now, but it really limited who could come on board for the first week, basically, that the ship was there. They were only accepting people who had had emergency surgeries and needed to recover in a safe place, basically.

The convention center, on the other hand, it's been open to people with COVID-19 since Saturday night. But unlike the ship, the convention center - it's not usually a hospital, right? It's a convention center.


HERSHER: So right out of the gate, it wasn't able to treat really sick people - people who might go into respiratory failure, for example - not a good place for them. The Army had to basically come in and build a hospital - like, make sure there are places to wash your hands and that protective equipment is in the right places. And that's taken weeks. And so even now, ICU beds are still being built there.

SHAPIRO: But when it opened on Saturday as hospitals in New York were overflowing, why didn't hundreds of patients just show up at the Javits Center?

HERSHER: (Laughter) That's a good question. One thing to remember is that the governor of New York actually ordered hospitals to add more beds when this all began, and a lot of hospitals did that. So they're filling up more slowly than they would have. Another reason is that there's a medical reason to not move some people. If you're really sick - if you're on a ventilator, you might not be able to be moved. And the military says they're concerned that patients and doctors might not fully understand, like, what kind of care you can get inside the Javits Center or onboard the ship. And so they're trying to fix that by sending people into hospitals to explain.

But for hospitals that are already transferring patients - and there are some - they have to go through this really involved process, and it might be slowing things down. So they have to identify patients who might be eligible to be moved. And we don't know the full criteria; we know they can't be on ventilators if they want to be moved. They have to get their consent. Then they have to call a hotline at the convention center and talk to a doctor over there, figure it out. And then once everyone's on the same page, then an ambulance comes and moves the person. So that can all take a day or more.

SHAPIRO: Do you expect this problem to be fixed soon? Are more patients going to be showing up at these two overflow hospitals?

HERSHER: Yes, everything points to that. So today Governor Cuomo said that it's ramping up the number of patients at these places. Especially as hospital staff get exhausted or get sick - which has already happened - there's going to be more need for these federally staffed beds. Another thing that could really increase the number of patients, though, would be if patients could be directly transported from their homes via ambulance to these sites. Right now the 911 system says that's not happening, but that would dramatically increase the numbers.

SHAPIRO: NPR's Rebecca Hersher, thanks for explaining this.

HERSHER: Thanks so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rebecca Hersher (she/her) is a reporter on NPR's Science Desk, where she reports on outbreaks, natural disasters, and environmental and health research. Since coming to NPR in 2011, she has covered the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, embedded with the Afghan army after the American combat mission ended, and reported on floods and hurricanes in the U.S. She's also reported on research about puppies. Before her work on the Science Desk, she was a producer for NPR's Weekend All Things Considered in Los Angeles.

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