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New York City Hospital Director Says Equipment Supply Will Only Last Through March

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

New York is the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak in the U.S. And each day this week, we have heard more and more stories about hospitals being overwhelmed by critically ill people.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

A New York Times story about the surge of patients detailed the struggle of Elmhurst Hospital in Queens - an overflowing emergency room, only a couple dozen ventilators and a patient waiting for more than two days for a hospital bed.

CHANG: Dr. Mitchell Katz is president and CEO of New York City Health and Hospitals, the public hospital system in New York City. That system includes Elmhurst Hospital. Dr. Katz joins me now.

Thank you very much for taking the time to speak with us.

MITCHELL KATZ: Thank you.

CHANG: I just want to start by asking you, what are you hearing from your hospitals today?

KATZ: Well, I'm involved in all 11 of our public hospitals. It is a very difficult time, but the health care workers are heroically responding to this pandemic. The hospitals are functioning well. We have enough protective equipment now. We have enough ventilators now.

CHANG: That's good to hear.

KATZ: We are certainly aware that we do not have enough to get through the next several weeks. We have enough to get through the rest of March, but to keep going, we're going to need massive infusions of protective equipment and ventilators from the federal government and other providers.

CHANG: Right. And just to give people an understanding of what an improvement, this sounds like, can you just compare what you were saying now to what you were seeing just - what? - a week ago or even two weeks ago?

KATZ: Well, we have received shipments of ventilators. We've never run out of ventilators, but I've certainly spent late evenings at night moving them around. Now we have enough of the reserves to go for a few days, but we would like to be able to tell people confidently we have enough ventilators to get through this entire period of time.

CHANG: Currently you have enough ventilators. You have enough protective equipment to last until the end of March. But we know that New York is still several days, maybe as much as two weeks from the peak of the outbreak there. What are you doing personally to prepare your hospitals for that?

KATZ: Right. So we are working with FEMA. We're working with Department of Defense and Homeland Security and the White House to secure as many ventilators as possible. We know that there still are ventilators that are being held as part of the cachet. We need those ventilators as quickly as possible to move to New York City. We are also working with various innovators on trying to see if there are ways that we can produce ventilators for the peak, but that's still a couple of weeks away.

CHANG: What about more staff? Are there plans in place to add staff to your hospitals?

KATZ: Absolutely. In the case of Elmhurst, I've added 54 staff members. And I'm going to continue to do that for our whole system. We're bringing about a thousand new nurses within the next week.

CHANG: It's reassuring to hear you sound relatively confident about how things are in control, at least at the moment. At the same time, though, we are hearing just terrible stories about doctors having to choose between which patients to treat and which patients to let die. Let me ask you, has anyone on your staff had to make an excruciating choice like that?

KATZ: I don't believe so, no. We still have enough equipment. I do think that partially what you're hearing is, first, of course, it's extremely anxiety producing to be in a hospital right now, to be working in a hospital. People are working under very difficult conditions, having to work fast, having to work hard to keep people alive, at the same time wanting to make sure that they're protected. And what they're worried about, when you listen carefully, is they're not saying yesterday I had to make a decision. What they're saying is I'm worried that we're not going to have the equipment and the staff we need, and we're going to have to make these decisions. I don't have anyone who has said that they have already made such a decision, and I feel confident of that.

CHANG: So tell me, what do you need most right now from your state, local and federal government?

KATZ: We've been very clear that the greatest need at this time is for ventilators and for staffing. And we keep increasing both. Depending upon the direction of the pandemic in New York City, there may come a time when we also need space. We're looking forward to the arrival of the SS Comfort, which is a thousand-bed ship that is due in New York port, I'm told, on Monday. While it's not prepared to take COVID patients, we can offload patients who have other illnesses to that ship and thereby be able to open up more slots and have more staffing. There is a field hospital going up in the Javits Center. We are opening up 300 beds...

CHANG: Convention center in Manhattan.

KATZ: ...Next week ourselves.

CHANG: OK. Dr. Mitchell Katz is president and CEO of New York City Health and Hospitals, the public hospital system in New York City.

Thank you again for giving us your time today.

KATZ: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.