New York the ‘canary in the coal mine’ for U.S.
A medical worker speaks with patients at a COVID-19 testing station at The Brooklyn Hospital Center, Monday, March 23, in New York. | John Minchillo / AP

Doctors at New York hospitals are saying they fear that very soon they will have to make decisions about who lives and who dies because they do not have the equipment they need to treat all of their patients.

In a desperate attempt to deal with an unprecedented pandemic, New York’s leaders are warning that the city and state are hanging by their fingernails as they struggle to avoid being sucked into an abyss. As they issue these warnings, the UN’s World Health Organization has declared that the United States as a whole is rapidly becoming the epicenter of the worldwide pandemic.

New York officials warn that the city is becoming the next Italy and that the infection curve in New York is worse than it is in that country. The infection rate in New York is close to the rate in Spain, where the number of infections doubles every day and the national death toll has now surpassed that of China.

For two days in a row now, Gov. Andrew Cuomo has warned that despite a virtual lockdown of the people and freezing of the economy, the spread of COVID-19 is accelerating dangerously and the people of the nation’s second-most populous state are desperate for the tools they need to fight back. Those tools include ventilators and more hospital beds. The horrific peak of the pandemic could be raging in New York in 14 to 21 days, he said, about the time Donald Trump says he wants the nation to get back to work. The president prescribed his “survival of the fittest, let them die” solution in several talks yesterday as he called for trashing social distancing and “packing the churches” with people on Easter Sunday, April 12.

Responding to that, Democratic Sen. Chris van Hollen of Maryland said the nation must listen to respected health officials like Dr. Anthony Fauci, “not to quacks like Donald Trump, who is saying he wants everyone back at work and in ‘packed churches’ by Easter.”

Cuomo is warning that what’s happening now in New York will soon begin happening in Chicago, Los Angeles, Washington state, New Orleans, and other places all across the nation. Already, seven percent of the New York City police force is out sick, with 200 testing positive for the coronavirus.

With COVID-19 cases officially numbering 30,000 in New York but most likely numbering a million or more, Cuomo and the nation see New York as the epicenter of the pandemic in the U.S. and possibly on its way to becoming the epicenter for the world.

As the death curve deepens in the U.S., there is still no national policy or set of rules coming from the federal government.

Dr. Jerome Adams, the Surgeon General, has warned that things are getting “really bad” and that everyone should be staying home right now. “We really, really, really need everyone to stay home,” he said, in contrast to Trump who says he wants to restart the economy before April 12.

Cuomo scoffed at a FEMA offer of only several hundred ventilators when he needs 30,000. “You decide then who we let live and who we allow to die,” the angry governor declared on national television.

People line up outside Elmhurst Hospital Center to be tested for the coronavirus, March 24, in the Queens borough of New York.  Mary Altaffer AP

New York, absent any national plan by the Trump regime, is constructing field hospitals right now, ordering its regular hospitals to increase capacity by 50% and telling residents to stay home. Cuomo is warning, however, that it is not enough.

“We are not slowing it, and it is accelerating on its own,” Cuomo said during news conferences yesterday and today. He spoke at the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center in New York City, the site of one of the field hospitals.

“One of the forecasters said to me we were looking at a freight train coming across the country. We’re now looking at a bullet train because the numbers are going up that quickly.”

Cuomo said there was a “critical and desperate need” for ventilators and the state would require at least 30,000. The state’s hospital system typically has 3,000-7,000, he said.

The governor demanded that the Trump administration make available its 20,000 reserve ventilators to New York. The federal government says it will hold onto that reserve, but late yesterday Pence said it could send 4,000 in two installments over the next few days.

Most health experts in New York say they will need 140,000 beds. Cuomo said the state only has 43,000 now.

Dr. Deborah Birx, the coordinator of Trump’s coronavirus response team, offered no help or immediate advice to New York yesterday but did say that the spread was so bad in New York because people riding the subways are probably touching metal surfaces.

AP reporters writing for that outlet have described in an article today “a cacophony of coughing” in New York City’s packed emergency rooms “with beds squeezed in wherever there is space.” Overworked, sleep-deprived doctors and nurses, rationed to one face mask a day, are “wracked by a dwindling number of available ventilators.”

Health care workers are the heroes in those hospitals, serving the people of the city with quadruple the rate of infection of the rest of the country.

Khalid Amin, a doctor at Methodist Hospital in Brooklyn, told the AP that he treated seven COVID-19 patients yesterday and how each was hit hard in the same way—extreme fatigue and gasping for air after even the slightest move.

The doctor said when he applies his stethoscope to the backs of his patients, he hears the same sound: “It’s a crackle, like crumpling paper.”

He and many other doctors at city hospitals say they are afraid too for their own lives, afraid to take off the one mask they have available for an entire day.

The biggest challenge in terms of supplies, Cuomo says, is the gap in ICU beds. He says they have only 3,000 of the 40,000 they will need. An ICU bed is one that is equipped with a ventilator.

He issued a special warning to young people using the city parks in large numbers, despite the social distance warnings. He said he will try to reduce available NYC streets to cars and open them to pedestrians so those who must go out have bigger spaces. In parks, basketball and close contact sports will be banned, and if people violate that rule, the playgrounds will also be closed.

He expects that the apex of hospitalizations will be reached in about 21 days, the time at which the state will need the maximum number of beds outlined in the projections.

He said the challenge of achieving enough equipment will require creative solutions, including doing things like “hacking” ventilators meant to serve one patient into machines that can be rigged to serve two or more. Italian hospitals have converted the machines intended to serve one into machines that can serve four.

All the ventilators that can be purchased, Cuomo said, have been purchased, so that now it is a matter for the country to ramp up production of new ones. This includes bringing them in from other countries.

He said other regions will face at a later time what New York is facing now, so the country should put resources in New York first and later shift them to other areas. Rolling deployment, he said, makes it more possible to meet the total needs of the country which cannot be met all at once and which, in any case, will not be needed all at once. “I will personally guarantee that when our curve goes down we will bring equipment and personnel to the next hot spot, which might be Los Angeles, for example.”

Cuomo challenged the $2 trillion “stimulus” Congress is passing. He said New York City gets only $1.2 billion from the package, which is a “drop in the bucket” against the billions needed. “These numbers don’t work, and I am telling Congress they don’t work,” Cuomo said.

Today, he also raised the need for stepped-up mental health services and said there are 6,000 volunteer professionals who are servicing a hotline that people can call free.

He said, “the feeling of closeness, connection, and humanity in New York will overcome at the end of the day.” It is “undefeatable,” he said. “We will overcome and we will show the rest of the country the way to do this.”


John Wojcik
John Wojcik

John Wojcik is Editor-in-Chief of People's World. He joined the staff as Labor Editor in May 2007 after working as a union meat cutter in northern New Jersey. There, he served as a shop steward and a member of a UFCW contract negotiating committee. In the 1970s and '80s, he was a political action reporter for the Daily World, this newspaper's predecessor, and was active in electoral politics in Brooklyn, New York.