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Long Island hospitals scramble to add beds to treat expected pandemic patients

Mount Sinai South Nassau's emergency department is erecting

Mount Sinai South Nassau's emergency department is erecting two medical tents to separate COVID-19 patients from those with other medical issues. Credit: Mount Sinai South Nassau

Long Island hospitals are racing against the clock, frantically trying to add thousands of beds to accommodate the rapidly growing number of COVID-19 patients that experts fear could soon overwhelm the system.

Hospitals have opened emergency triage centers, canceled elective surgeries and plan to convert sleeping quarters, cafeterias and lobbies to add space for patients.

"We know that the apex of this pandemic storm is likely to occur within 14 to 21 days," Carol Gomes, chief executive of Stony Brook University Hospital, said in a Facebook podcast Wednesday. "We are talking about two to three weeks. That's the amount of time we have to get this work done."

New York State, which tops the nation with more than 30,000 confirmed coronavirus cases, has 53,000 available hospital beds, including 4,000 in intensive care units, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said Wednesday.

Those numbers, Cuomo said, are insufficient to handle the influx of patients likely to inundate hospitals across the state. Cuomo wants hospitals to boost their capacity by 50% to 100%, which would potentially create 32,000 beds. In total, the state needs space for 140,000 patients, including 40,000 ICU beds with ventilators, the governor said.

"Now is the time to be aggressive and do things you've never done before," Cuomo said. 

Nassau, which has nearly 3,300 coronavirus cases, has about 4,000 hospital beds, which would need to grow to 6,000 to meet Cuomo's request, according to the County Department of Health.

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Suffolk, with 2,260 cases, originally had beds for 2,300 hospital patients but has since grown its capacity to 2,646, according to county spokesman Derek Poppe. That figure would need to grow to 3,450 to meet the 50% target.

Stony Brook plans to increase its capacity by 50% over the next four weeks and 100% — as many as 1,300 beds in total, including 235 in the ICU — over the next 10 weeks, said spokeswoman Lauren Sheprow. Before the spread of COVID-19, the hospital was certified for 624 beds but was staffing 588 beds based on patient demand. 

Stony Brook opened a mobile triage center in its south parking lot Monday to separate COVID patients from those who may not need to use the main emergency department, according to Dr. Josh Miller, who runs the new facility.

Northwell Health has 5,550 beds across its health system, which includes 19 hospitals on Long Island, New York City and Westchester, said spokesman Terry Lynam. But roughly 1,500 beds are in units such as maternity, neonatal and psychiatry that cannot be used for COVID patients, he said.

Northwell, which is currently treating 1,000 COVID cases, has identified 1,374 additional beds that can be used to boost capacity, Lynam said.

The health system could create space for about 1,350 more patients by converting operating rooms, laboratories, endoscopy units and public spaces such as cafeterias, lobbies and administrative offices — for a potential capacity of 6,381, he said.

"It's very challenging to try and find the space," Lynam said. "But the biggest challenge is finding the staff to handle the surge."

Northwell, which employs 17,000 nurses and 4,500 physicians, has put out requests for recent retirees and per-diem staffers, along with using staffing agencies, to boost its ranks.

Long Island Community Hospital in Patchogue, a 200-bed facility, has seen 45 COVID patients but is seeking to more than double its capacity to accommodate up to 415 patients, with an additional 50 beds for critical care, said spokeswoman Katherine Heaviside.

Mount Sinai South Nassau Hospital in Oceanside, which has more than 100 COVID cases, has launched plans to increase its capacity from 343 to 515, said spokesman Joe Calderone. One conference room was transformed into an oncology and infusion center, while another hosts 22 bunk beds where medical residents can rest in between their rounds, he said.

“We are looking at every nook and cranny in the hospital” to create more space, Calderone said.

NYU Winthrop Hospital in Mineola has identified space, including surgical units that were previously used for elective surgeries and sections of the cafeteria, to increase its 511-bed capacity by 50%, said Dr. Joseph Greco, chief of hospital operations.

“We’ll increase bed capacity in stages, as needed," said Greco, adding that the hospital Friday plans to open a 13-bed unit in converted conference space.

Catholic Health Services, which operates six hospitals in Nassau and Suffolk, plans to add nearly 1,000 beds to its current 1,928-patient capacity, said Patrick O'Shaughnessy, the system's chief clinical officer. 

Among the ideas, he said, is repurposing the "post-anesthesia care unit as additional potential sites for COVID-19 surge treatment areas."

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