There are many good reasons why Long Islanders should fear hospitals reaching capacity.
One is that capacity metrics are being used by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo to decide whether a region should be placed in a red zone, essentially a shutdown to levels we saw this spring. That happens when hospitals increase the number of staffed beds, cancel elective surgeries, and still hit a high level in the rate of hospital admissions — indicating that the region would meet 90% hospital capacity within the next three weeks.
In a sign of the seriousness of the moment, New York City’s public hospitals this week moved to suspend elective surgeries. Cuomo has mandated that Long Island hospitals add beds to deal with the coronavirus-infection surge, but the region is not yet in the red zone. To keep it that way, and to keep many businesses open, hospitals can’t be filled to the brim.
Hospital capacity also matters because reaching that danger zone would be catastrophic. It would mean beds in hospital cafeterias or hallways, auditoriums or lobbies. It would mean caring for patients in outdoor tents, and staff working around the clock.
It would mean even more of a strain than Long Island is already experiencing — a strain on doctors and nurses who already have weathered a particularly difficult year, a strain on the stretched physical limits of hospitals. Consider that a Mount Sinai South Nassau unit reserved for on-call residents to steal a nap during long shifts is now a COVID-19 unit. The physicians have to get their sleep in a conference center.
Reaching a red-zone hospital capacity level also could make it harder to care for deathly ill patients. Hospitals vow that wouldn’t happen, but the advanced therapeutics and tireless care developed by Long Island doctors and nurses to fight COVID-19 require lots of hands and minds: To flip a sedated, intubated ICU patient on his or her stomach to increase oxygen flow, a team of multiple fully suited staffers needs to be at the ready. Then the patient must be flipped back after around 18 hours.
A regional hospital system at emergency capacity would also likely mean more restrictions on visitation. Some Long Island hospital leaders have acknowledged the challenge of bringing in families to visit dying relatives. Many times this year, for instance, the dying were forced to say goodbye over a video call.
Fortunately, there are ways to prevent the system from overloading — on the state and hospital level, for example, by making sure hospitals around New York balance their loads. And the coronavirus spread can be held at bay by individuals who abide by restrictions on indoor gatherings, social distancing and mask wearing, all necessary even as vaccines are distributed. Cuomo’s office has estimated that in cases where the source of spread is documented, more than 70% come from small gatherings.
Stick with the restrictions, through these crucial months. The alternative would be horrific.
— The editorial board