With hospitals under siege, U.S. to build hundreds of temporary coronavirus wards
By Susan Heavey and Nick Brown
WASHINGTON/NEW YORK (Reuters) – The United States aims to build hundreds of temporary hospitals to ease pressure on medical centers struggling to keep up with a surge of coronavirus patients, officials said on Tuesday, a day after the number of U.S. deaths hit a new daily high.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which converted a New York convention center into a 1,000-bed hospital in the space of a week, is searching for hotels, dormitories, convention centers and large open space to build as many as 341 temporary hospitals, the chief of corps said on Tuesday.
“The scope is immense,” Lieutenant General Todd Semonite of the corps told the ABC News “Good Morning America” program. “We’re looking right now at around 341 different facilities across all of the United States.”
The U.S. caseload rose by more than 20,000 confirmed cases on Monday, overwhelming hospitals that are running out of doctors, nurses, medical equipment and protective gear.
A record 575 people died, pushing the death toll past 3,000 on Monday, more than the number killed in the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, as the caseload rose to more than 163,000, according to a Reuters tally of official statistics.
U.S. officials estimate the death toll could reach 100,000 to 200,000.
The corps, the engineering arm of the U.S. Army, joined with New York state officials to convert New York’s Jacob Javits Convention Center into a facility to treat non-coronavirus patients. The conversion will relieve the pressure on hospitals treating patients with COVID-19, the respiratory ailment caused by the novel coronavirus.
In addition, construction of a 68-bed field hospital began on Sunday in Manhattan’s Central Park. Provided by the Mount Sinai Health System and non-profit organization Samaritan’s Purse, the makeshift facility is expected to begin accepting patients on Tuesday, Mayor Bill de Blasio said.
The converted convention center is blocks away from the Hudson River pier where the U.S. Navy hospital ship Comfort docked on Monday. The floating hospital will take up to 1,000 non-coronavirus patients starting on Tuesday. Another temporary New York hospital is planned for the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center where the U.S. Open is played.
In Los Angeles, the USNS Mercy, similar to the Comfort, is already treating patients. Authorities in New Orleans, Los Angeles and Chicago were setting up field hospitals and convention centers in their cities.
In the New York City suburbs, nurses are bracing for a surge of patients. The medical surgery unit at New York-Presbyterian Hospital’s Hudson Valley branch has 17 coronavirus patients, more than half its capacity, said nurse Emily Muzyka, 25.
Muzyka, who is training nurses on loan from other units, said she was trying to stay calm, but broke down when a relatively healthy, 44-year-old COVID-19 patient declined quickly and required ventilation.
“I had a meltdown and cried to my boyfriend,” she said.
No-visitor policies mean very ill patients may die alone, adding to the emotional toll.
“I’ve held patients’ hands through their final breaths in the past,” Muzyka said. “It’s a lonely death.”
In a tribute to first responders, New York’s landmark Empire State Building on Tuesday night illuminated the top of its tower in red with a pulsating light on its antenna that simulated an emergency siren. The building’s website said this was an homage to the “heroic COVID-19 emergency workers.”
The temporary hospitals aim to free all of New York City’s 20,000 hospital beds for coronavirus patients, de Blasio said.
New York is still short on doctors and nurses, and de Blasio asked the U.S. military for help.
“We are going to need a lot more military presence. We’re going to need a lot more help from the federal government, including medical personnel from the military, very, very quickly,” de Blasio told NBC’s “Today” show.
U.S. health officials are urging Americans to follow stay-at-home orders until the end of April to contain the spread of the virus, which originated in China and has infected about three-quarters of a million people around the world.
The U.S. government’s top infectious disease expert said on Tuesday there was some evidence that social distancing efforts to slow the spread of coronavirus were having an impact, even though the situation remained very dangerous.
“We’re starting to see glimmers that that is actually having some dampening effect,” Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told CNN in an interview. “But that does not take away from the seriousness … We clearly are seeing cases going up.”
At least 30 of the 50 states have ordered people to stay home, leading economists to predict severe economic contraction.
U.S. House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat, said lawmakers needed to take up another coronavirus economic relief bill, but Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican, said Congress should “wait and see” whether another bill was needed.
(Reporting by Susan Heavey, Doina Chiacu, Nick Brown and Barbara Goldberg; Writing by Daniel Trotta; Editing by Frank McGurty and Howard Goller)