States are canceling plans for extra hospitals as the coronavirus pandemic, though deadly, falls short of doomsday predictions that the U.S. health care system couldn’t handle the onslaught of patients.
New York — the state suffering from the most COVID-19 cases and deaths — postponed plans for make-shift hospital sites, as has Michigan, which recently emerged as one of the next hot spots.
Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, whose state suffered the first COVID-19 outbreak in the U.S. in January, is packing up a field hospital that the feds built at the Century Link Field Event Center. He said the state doesn’t need it even if it has another spike of coronavirus cases.
“At this point, our hospitals should have enough capacity to support a surge in patients,” Mr. Inslee said.
The national projections of demand for hospital beds turned out to be outlandish.
In late March one of the key prognosticators, the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington, projected a peak hospital bed use of nearly 225,000 for right now. A week ago, the IHME cut that projection to about 140,000 beds for COVID-19 patients right now.
In reality, fewer than 60,000 will be used for COVID-19 patients on any given day this week, the IHME now says. And the need for beds will only drop from here, according to projections.
New York has seen more than 7,300 deaths from the coronavirus and has received help from the federal government, including the U.S. Navy Comfort, a hospital ship, deployed to Manhattan to treat an expected overflow of patients from the city’s hospitals.
The federal government also helped construct a 2,500-bed hospital at the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center.
Recent reports, though, have suggested only about a third of the Javits Center is occupied.
About 327 beds are in use there out of the 2,500, while 70 are occupied out of 500 aboard the Comfort. A second military hospital ship, “Mercy,” that had been sent to Los Angeles has 20 beds in use out of 1,000, Fox News reported.
Lt. Col. Richard Goldenberg of the New York Army National Guard said the hospital camp at the Javits Center served its purpose.
“It has seen nearly 700 patients, providing relief to those city hospitals strained with care for other coronavirus patients,” he told The Washington Times. “The pandemic response is clearly not over, nor has the risk to the city healthcare system passed. And the capacity at the Javits NY Medical Station provides the safeguards and relief for those city hospitals.”
Lt. Col. Goldenberg also noted that Gov. Andrew Cuomo put plans on hold for additional temporary medical sites, though one did open on Staten Island.
Deputy Secretary of Defense David Norquist said the military response “evolved” as the situation resolved itself.
At first, the goal was simply to maximize the number of hospital beds so the Army Corps of Engineers transformed the Javits Center into a hospital focusing on non-COVID 19 patients.
“Over time, what we started to see was because of everyone staying at home, car accidents were down (and) other injuries were down,” Mr. Norquist recently said. “The demand for a trauma center was lower so we reconfigured the Javits — spread the beds out [and] made them available.”
Defense officials said the target of the entire mission was to “stay ahead of the demand signal” by providing hospital beds. They quickly discovered the city’s hospitals were able to manage to find spaces for the number of patients.
The Pentagon sent about 400 physicians, nurses and respiratory therapists to fill the manpower gaps at New York hospitals. Military officials are now consulting with the CDC to see if that plan might be repeated at COVID-19 hot spots in other locations, either build a military field clinic where the beds remain empty or partner with local hospitals that have capacity but need medical staff.
“I think that’s a good example of how we’re trying to adapt and be flexible,” said Tom McCaffery, assistant secretary of defense for health affairs.
Mr. McCaffery doesn’t criticize local officials who pushed for expensive military assets such as hospital ships that might not have turned out to be the solution to their problem.
“I wouldn’t say the states got it wrong. I would say that the states were doing good due diligence in planning and anticipating,” he said. “Rather than being in a situation where they need that capacity and it’s not there, I’d much rather have it ready to go. I think that’s a far superior position to be in.”
In Michigan, the retreat from a hospital bed buildup is striking.
One field hospital in southeast Michigan went from initially planning for about 1,000 beds to now 250, though more can be added if needed in the future.
The University of Michigan hospital system was set to construct a field hospital with an additional 500 beds that would have opened last week, but those plans had been put on hold with the state observing a flattening of the curve, according to reports.
Michelle M. Grinnell, a spokesperson for the Michigan Economic Development Corporation, said the state has an alternative care center in Detroit with 970 beds.
“The best possible path forward though continues to be for residents to stay home and stay safe and practice social distancing to reduce the spread of COVID-19, and the increased need for the patient beds these alternate care facilities are providing,” she said in a statement to The Times.
In late March, when Louisiana officials were predicting a hospital overflow, Gov. John Bel Edwards announced the New Orleans Convention Center would be retrofitted as a medical wing to treat patients well on the road to recovery. The move would free up hospital beds for sicker patients.
Roughly $76.5 million was spent on private contractors to convert the space, even giving it the capacity to double its number of beds to 2,000 should the need arise.
But in April Louisiana’s hospitalization rate began to stabilize. As of Tuesday, while the state’s death toll attributed to COVID-19 passed 1,000 people, the number of those hospitalized dipped below 2,000 for the first time in weeks. As of last week, the Convention Center facility had admitted 37 people.
Other governors are continuing to prepare field hospitals in major cities within their states, anticipating a potential peak in COVID-19 cases in late April.
Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp announced over the weekend there will be a field hospital constructed at the Georgia World Congress Center in Atlanta with about 200 beds.
“We will be able to house Georgians with mild to moderate illness and if needed we can quickly expand capacity to 400 non-ICU beds,” Mr. Kemp announced Sunday, noting his state anticipates a peak in cases April 26.
Florida’s Gov. Ron DeSantis, too, announced a couple of hundred field hospital beds being deployed to Miami and Lee County in southwest Florida.
Models suggest Florida could hit its peak in cases next week.
Earlier this month, Chicago began constructing a field hospital at McCormick Place, which should provide 3,000 beds by the end of April.
• James Varney contributed to this report.