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13 deaths in a day: An ‘apocalyptic’ coronavirus surge at an NYC hospital

A person is unloaded from an ambulance outside of Elmhurst Hospital Center in New York City Friday.
A person is unloaded from an ambulance outside of Elmhurst Hospital Center in New York City Friday.Dave Sanders/NYT

NEW YORK — In several hours on Tuesday, Dr. Ashley Bray performed chest compressions at Elmhurst Hospital Center on a woman in her 80s, a man in his 60s and a 38-year-old who reminded the doctor of her fiancé. All had tested positive for the coronavirus and had gone into cardiac arrest. All eventually died.

Elmhurst, a 545-bed public hospital in Queens, has begun transferring patients not suffering from coronavirus to other facilities as it moves toward becoming a facility dedicated entirely to the outbreak. Doctors and nurses have struggled to make do with a few dozen ventilators. Calls over a loudspeaker of “Team 700,” the code for when a patient is on the verge of death, come several times a shift. Some have died inside the emergency room while waiting for a bed.


A refrigerated truck has been stationed outside to hold the bodies of the dead. Over the past 24 hours, New York City’s public hospital system said in a statement, 13 people at Elmhurst had died.

“It’s apocalyptic,” said Bray, a general medicine resident at the hospital.

Across the city, which has become the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak in the United States, hospitals are beginning to confront the kind of harrowing surge in cases that has overwhelmed health care systems in China, Italy and other countries. On Wednesday morning, New York City reported 16,788 confirmed cases and 199 deaths.

More than 2,800 coronavirus patients have been hospitalized in the city. Gov. Andrew Cuomo on Wednesday offered a glimmer of hope that social-distancing measures were starting to slow the growth in hospitalizations. Still, hospitals are preparing for a major influx.

Working with state and federal officials, hospitals have repeatedly expanded the portions of their facilities equipped to handle patients who had stayed home until worsening fevers and difficulty breathing forced them into emergency rooms.


Dr. Mitchell Katz, the head of the Health and Hospitals Corp., which operates New York City’s public hospitals, said plans were underway to transform many areas of the Elmhurst hospital into intensive care units for extremely sick patients.

But New York’s hospitals may be about to lose their leeway for creativity in finding spaces.

All of the more than 1,800 intensive care units in New York City are expected to be full by Friday, according to a Federal Emergency Management Agency leadership briefing obtained by The New York Times. Patients could stay for weeks, limiting space for newly sickened residents. Cuomo said on Wednesday that he had not seen the briefing; he said officials could quickly add intensive care beds if they received more ventilators, the machines that help the most sick coronavirus patients breathe.

The federal government is sending a 1,000-bed hospital ship to New York, although it is not scheduled to arrive until mid-April. Officials have begun erecting four 250-bed hospitals at the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center in Midtown Manhattan, which could be ready in a week. President Donald Trump said on Wednesday on Twitter that construction was ahead of schedule.

Officials have also discussed converting hotels and arenas into temporary medical facilities.

At least two city hospitals have filled up their morgues, and city officials anticipated that the rest would reach capacity by the end of this week, according to the leadership briefing. The city requested 85 refrigerated trailers from FEMA for mortuary services, along with staff, the briefing said.


“That is inaccurate,” said a spokeswoman for the city’s office of the chief medical examiner. “We have significant morgue capacity in our five citywide sites, and the ability to expand.”

In interviews, doctors and nurses at hospitals across the city gave accounts of how they were being stretched toward a breaking point.

Workers at several hospitals, including the Jacobi Medical Center in the Bronx, said employees such as obstetrician-gynecologists and radiologists have been called to work in emergency wards.

At a branch of the Montefiore Medical Center, also in the Bronx, there have been one or two deaths a day, or more, said Judy Sheridan-Gonzalez, a nurse. There are not always enough gurneys, so some patients sit in chairs. One patient on Sunday had been without a bed for 36 hours, she said.

Confirmed coronavirus patients are sometimes paired with those who have not yet received test results, added Sheridan-Gonzalez, the president of the New York State Nurses Association.

Rikki Lane, a doctor who has worked at Elmhurst for more than 20 years, said the hospital had handled “the first wave of this tsunami.” She compared the scene in the emergency department with an overcrowded parking garage where physicians must move patients in and out of spots to access other patients blocked by stretchers.

Family members are not permitted inside, she said.

Lane recalled recently treating a man in his 30s whose breathing deteriorated quickly and had to be put on a ventilator. “He was in distress and panicked, I could see the terror in his eyes,” she said. “He was alone.”