A top New York surgeon warns that the coronavirus has 'breached' hospital walls and infections could peak in 22 to 32 days

mmark@businessinsider.com (Michelle Mark)

Sgt. Amouris Coss/U.S. Army National Guard via Reuters

  • A top New York City surgeon has issued two ominous memos, warning that the healthcare system could soon be overwhelmed and that healthcare workers are at risk.

  • In a memo made public by Columbia University's Department of Surgery, the chair, Dr. Craig Smith, warned that "the virus has breached our Department walls" and colleagues are becoming infected.

  • He also warns that coronavirus cases could keep climbing, reaching their peak in 22 to 32 days.

  • At that point, the New York-Presbyterian health system could need up to 934 ICU beds — more than are currently available. Columbia University's hospital is affiliated with New York-Presbyterian.

  • Smith also emphasized a dire shortage of personal protective equipment, noting that health care workers are using 40,000 N95 masks per day, and are projected to soon need 70,000 per day.

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One of New York City's top surgeons issued a number of stark warnings in recent days about surging numbers of coronavirus patients and heightened risks to frontline healthcare workers.

A Department of Health employee trains New York Army National Guard soldiers to register people on iPads at a drive through coronavirus disease (COVID-19) mobile testing center in Glenn Island Park, New Rochelle, U.S. March 14, 2020. Sgt. Amouris Coss/U.S. Army National Guard/Handout via REUTERS THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY.

Dr. Craig Smith, the surgeon-in-chief at New York-Presbyterian Hospital/Columbia University Irving Medical Center and the chair of Columbia University's Department of Surgery, sounded the alarm Friday about projections that the hospital system could "reach peak COVID-19 volume within 22-32 days."

At that point, New York-Presbyterian would need 700 to 934 intensive care unit beds. It won't have 700, even as it works to increase its capacity, Smith wrote in a letter to his colleagues.

"The hard data has become alarming," Smith said. "I wish I could use a more comforting word."

Read more: A leaked presentation reveals the document US hospitals are using to prepare for a major coronavirus outbreak. It estimates 96 million US coronavirus cases and 480,000 deaths.

In a pair of memos released publicly by Columbia University's Department of Surgery, Smith says that New York City is the epicenter of the country's coronavirus outbreak.

 

New York officials have been rushing to slow the spread of the virus, implementing increasingly harsh restrictions on public life across the state.

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Gov. Andrew Cuomo has urged New Yorkers to stay inside as much as possible, and on Friday banned all non-essential gatherings of any size and ordered all non-essential businesses to keep employees at home.

Even with the increased restrictions, New York's hospital system appears headed for a crisis. Smith warned in one memo that frontline health care workers in the hospital system were at risk from treating their own patients.

"In the past few days it has also become obvious that the virus has breached our Department walls, and we can expect to hear about increasing numbers of infected Department colleagues," he wrote in a memo published Saturday. "It should be no surprise if these infections appear in clusters associated with the care of infected patients."

 

Like hospital systems across the country, New York facilities are also facing a dire shortage of personal protective equipment, Smith said.

For instance, health care workers at New York-Presbyterian are using 40,000 non-N95 masks per day, and are projected to soon need 70,000 per day. Demand is set to far outstrip availability, Smith said.

The entire US strategic reserve only holds 75 million masks, Smith said, and hospital officials have only been able to secure 150,000 — essentially a two-day supply.

Smith said that the Department of Surgery is at risk of being "overwhelmed within a few weeks" without "planning, cooperation, execution, personal sacrifice, and maybe a little luck."

He also said that the number of previously undetected coronavirus cases in the city will be "much larger than imagined," meaning his surgeons will increasingly be operating on patients with the coronavirus.

As of Saturday evening, the United States had confirmed more than 25,000 coronavirus cases and 307 deaths.

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