ALBANY — Capital Region hospitals detailed their preparations Tuesday for a potential surge in COVID-19 cases.
The update provided at Albany Medical Center came a day after Gov. Andrew Cuomo formalized a directive for hospitals to increase their inpatient capacity at least 50 percent and just hours after the governor said the spread of the disease is outpacing New York’s best efforts to contain it.
COVID-19 can spread widely in dense communities, and so far has hit the heavily populated downstate region hardest. Upstate, the highest case count has been in Albany County, the most populous county in the Capital Region. But all of the region’s hospitals, from Hudson to Glens Falls and Troy to Amsterdam, have been preparing for a surge.
Their preparations come down to the same thing at the micro level as the state has been doing in in broad scale: Trying to keep the disease from affecting their personnel by monitoring symptoms and preparing to treat a large number of people.
One of the seemingly biggest tasks — having 50 percent more hospital beds ready to go on short notice — has not been as much of a hurdle as it might seem to an outsider.
Ellis Medicine in Schenectady, for example, will add a second bed to private rooms and put beds in the facilities normally used for the outpatient and non-emergency surgical procedures that have been curtailed. It can’t use the old St. Clare’s Hospital for sick people, Chief Medical Officer Dr. David Liebers said, because it’s now a nursing home, but it can draw personnel and equipment from the McClellan Avenue Campus to deal with the crisis at other Ellis facilities.
Noting that the rate of confirmed infections per resident is far higher downstate than upstate, Liebers said upstate — with its much lower population density — has a chance to reduce the local health impact of the pandemic with the social distancing Cuomo keeps pressing people to practice.
“Knowing that this is extremely unpredictable right now, it’s possible that we have a better opportunity to blunt the curve here,” said Liebers, an infectious disease specialist. “That’s my own opinion, it’s not epidemiology. But I think we have a great opportunity as a community.”
Ellis had nine inpatients with COVID as of Tuesday.
On Monday, what may have been the first COVID death in the region was recorded there with the passing of noted entrepreneur and philanthropist Walt Robb, who was 92.
The COVID-19 crisis has led to a regional collaboration by Albany Med, Columbia Memorial Hospital, Ellis, Glens Falls Hospital, St. Mary’s, Saratoga Hospital, and the hospitals run by St. Peter’s Health Partners.
Drs. Dennis McKenna and Fred Venditti, top executives at Albany Med, said the joint effort has created a medical community that is better-informed as a whole for whatever may come.
“We understand this can be a time of great anxiety for many members of our community,” McKenna said. “We want to reassure everyone that we are continuing to work with all regional hospitals to face ongoing and developing challenges related to this pandemic.”
He said of the 1,642 tests Albany Med has administered, only 79 have been positive and only 11 of those have been admitted. Five of the 11 have been discharged to recover at home. Fifty test results are still pending.
All of the hospitals have stopped testing the general public for COVID-19. The test kits are in short supply, the disease has been proved to be present in the community, and a positive test doesn’t change the approach to treatments — severe symptoms or major complications call for hospitalization, with or without a positive test. So testing the general public has been deemed a lower priority.
The Capital Region hospitals said they would complete their surge plans and submit them to the state later Tuesday, as ordered. St. Peter’s Health Partners said it can add 663 acute-care beds to the 702 across all its facilities without having to go beyond the walls of those facilities, and ramp up from 48 to 150 ICU beds. Ellis Medicine can boost its bed count 65 percent overnight and boost its ICU count nearly 100 percent almost as fast. Columbia Memorial is ready now to boost bed count 65 percent and can jump more than 100 percent with a little time and help from the state; it can increase its ICU beds more than 100 percent. St. Marys, with a normal inpatient population of 50 to 60, will be able to accommodate about 180 and boost its ICU capacity from eight to more than 20.
Other points made by the hospital leaders:
- Donations of hard-to-find medical supplies are much appreciated. Homemade cloth masks, while a wonderful gesture, are not proved to be effective and can’t be used.
- The hospitals have stopped doing nonessential surgical procedures to free up supplies, personnel and facilities.
- It might seem odd to see hospital personnel, whether security guards at the door or nurses providing care, to not be wearing personal protective equipment. But not all are required to wear masks at all times.
- The support by the community for hospitals and their overworked medical and support staff is deeply appreciated.
- Capital Region hospitals have not received requests for personnel or equipment from New York City-area hospitals.