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June 3, 2020, 2:29 p.m. EDT

New York hospitals prepare for a potential second wave of the coronavirus

Though numbers in the city have fallen drastically, space is being saved for future patients, and equipment is being bolstered

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By V.L. Hendrickson 


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To prepare for the next surge of COVID cases, New York hospitals are aggressively sourcing PPE, like masks and gowns, to at least a 90-day supply.

As New York City prepares to start reopening next week, officials are mindful that a second or third wave of COVID-19 is all but inevitable. 

As such, hospitals have already begun the task of preparing for the likelihood that the city will again be faced with the need for more ventilators and personal protective equipment (PPE) like masks, shields and gowns.

“We’re still in the middle of a really catastrophic disaster, so we’re barely ready to even talk about the next wave,” said Dr. Irwin Redlener, a pediatrician, a professor at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health and the director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at the Earth Institute at Columbia. “We’re still on the first wave, but...I think it’s completely inevitable that we’ll have a second wave and probably a third wave...Until we get a vaccine, we’re going to be in danger of repeated waves of the pandemic.” 

To prepare for the next surge of COVID cases, hospitals are aggressively sourcing PPE to comply with a mandate from the state to have at least a 90-day supply. At the same time, health-care workers continue to conserve PPE. Hospitals are also replenishing their supplies of ventilators and other machinery and maintaining acute-care areas in spaces that were recently converted. 

The state also has a mandate, as part of its criteria for opening local economies, that 30% of hospitals’ total beds and 30% of hospitals’ intensive care unit beds be available.

Currently, while most of the state has met these hospital bed requirements, New York City has only a 29% share of open beds. The city is also working toward a goal of 2,500 contract tracers, and a crew of 1,700 tracers started work this week. 

Related: ‘The 1918 Spanish flu’s second wave was even more devastating’: WHO advises caution to avoid ‘immediate second peak’

New York City has reported nearly 210,000 cases of the virus as of Wednesday, with 16,892 confirmed fatalities. The state has reported 373,040 positive cases, with more than 24,000 deaths. 

Redlener thinks a vaccine is not likely before the end of 2021. And when it comes, it will need to be manufactured on a global scale.

Until then, hospitals will have to stay vigilant against the virus. That means maintaining protocols, creating spaces exclusively for COVID patients and communicating across hospital systems. 

“We need better coordination,” Redlener said. “It’s not just the individual hospital readiness, which is important, but I think [we need] more cohesion on how the hospitals in any given area are functioning together.”

New York University hospitals have been doing this, according to Dr. Joseph J. Greco, chief of hospital operations at NYU Winthrop located on Long Island. The heads of the hospitals in the system have calls at least once a day to talk about patient care, developing protocols and issues with ventilators. 

In addition, Greco said heads of hospitals have also been in close communication with the state to get updates and share information.

Separately, NYU Winthrop was the first on Long Island to receive a COVID-19 case in March. In April, it had so many patients that a conference room was turned into an ICU and its library became a support space for health-care workers. 

A second surge of COVID cases could come in December or January, Greco said. That’s likely to collide with the flu season, when hospitals also see an increase in patients. 

The hospital plans to keep its expanded ICU space in order to keep those patients separated and prevent cross-infection, he explained. The added space for acute care will help them accommodate another surge of sick patients. 

Read next: Will the protests lead to a spike in coronavirus cases? That depends

Meanwhile, stashing away protective equipment for a potential second wave remains a challenge. While Greco stressed that health-care workers at NYU Winthrop were well-protected, the hospital is still asking its employees to reuse masks and gowns to conserve supply as the stockpile is replenished. In the meantime, PPE is being “sourced aggressively,” he added, and ventilators and other supplies are being bolstered. 

The supply chain is improving, according to Dr. Eric Toner, an emergency physician and a senior scholar with the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security.

“I’m not hearing about the kinds of shortages that were experienced before,” he noted.

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