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Cuomo tells hospitals to prepare for more beds for COVID-19 patients, won’t rule out more shutdowns

Governor Andrew Cuomo's office
Gov. Andrew Cuomo in Rochester, last week.

With New York state’s rate of COVID-19 infection above 4% for the second day in a row, Gov. Andrew Cuomo on Monday announced new emergency hospital rules to prevent the state’s health care system from being overwhelmed.

They include calling on retired doctors and nurses to help out and canceling elective surgeries in Erie County. Cuomo also said he can’t rule out another statewide economic shutdown if the infection rate continues to rise.

Cuomo, likening the COVID-19 pandemic to an ongoing war, said it’s time to shift battle tactics again. He said future decisions to limit economic activity and in-person gatherings will take into account a region’s hospital capacity.

Under new rules, all hospitals in the state will have to immediately boost available bed space by 50%, and emergency field hospitals will prepare to be reactivated. To prevent individual hospitals from becoming overwhelmed, private hospital systems will be required to move patients between their facilities, and even transfer them to another system if needed.

“We are not going to live through the nightmare of overwhelmed hospitals again,” Cuomo said.

Cuomo said he’s even more worried about potential staff shortages. He said medical personnel, several months into the pandemic, are already overextended. He said the virus was largely concentrated downstate in the spring, and it was possible to shift patients and hospital personnel to other regions of the state to keep enough beds open.

But he said now that the virus is rising all over the state, that won’t be possible. The 30,000 out-of-state doctors and nurses who volunteered to assist New Yorkers earlier this year also will not be available because they’re needed in their own states, where in most cases the virus is climbing at an even higher rate.

He put out a call for retired medical professionals to consider coming back to work.

“Every hospital has to identify retired nurses and doctors now,” Cuomo said. “We are already experiencing staff shortages. Staff just gets exhausted after a while. They’ve had a horrendous year.”

In Erie County, where the virus rate is the highest in the state at over 7%, elective surgeries will be canceled.

Cuomo said he won’t rule out a total shutdown of all nonessential businesses in a region if it appears that its hospitals are overwhelmed.

But the governor said, for now, he’s sticking with the microcluster approach to controlling the disease. It includes designating yellow, orange and red zones with corresponding restrictions for things like religious gatherings and indoor dining. But there will be new modifications based on the region’s ability to care for hospital patients.

And he said the threshold numbers for declaring those zones -- a 10-day positivity rate of 2.5% for yellow zones, 3% for orange zones, and 4% for red zones in cities and slightly higher thresholds in rural areas -- are “artificially low.” He predicted that the state will soon surpass those limits as the aftereffects of small gatherings over Thanksgiving drive the rate of the virus even higher.

“There will be a week to 10-day lag before we see that number come to effect,” Cuomo said.

And he said it’s likely there will be a further spike in mid-January, after the winter holidays conclude.

Cuomo spoke as the statewide positivity rate hit 4.57% on Sunday; 3,532 New Yorkers were in the hospital with COVID-19, and 54 died of the disease.

The governor said unlike the spring, though, every effort will be made to keep the schools open, even in orange and red zones. He said in-person learning for kindergarten through eighth-grade students is a priority, and stricter testing protocols will be required. Cuomo said so far, the rate of the virus in schools is lower than the average for the surrounding community, so it’s safer to keep kids learning in the classrooms.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau Chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 public radio stations in New York State. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.