New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo delivers an update on the coronavirus in New York, at the state Capitol in Albany on March 7.

Cindy Schultz / The New York Times

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo delivers an update on the coronavirus in New York, at the state Capitol in Albany on March 7.

March 16, 2020

Cuomo Proposes Converting SUNY Dorm Beds into Hospital Beds

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As students spent the weekend scrambling to box bedding and vacate campus dormitories, Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D-N.Y.) weighed options for expanding hospital capacity as COVID-19 cases continue to spike statewide.

One remedy, proposed in a March 15 op-ed letter in The New York Times to President Donald Trump, is to direct the Army Corps of Engineers to convert state-owned buildings, such as State University of New York college residential housing, into temporary medical centers.

“You have people on gurneys in hallways. That is what is going to happen now if we do nothing,” Cuomo said in a press conference Monday morning. “That, my friends, would be a tragedy.”

The Army Corps of Engineers is a group of builders, scientists and skilled workers housed under the Department of Defense, who can be deployed to alleviate stress on state governments and aid in fixing tough situations.

Utilization of the Corps requires approval from the Trump administration, which Cuomo solicited in his letter, explaining late on Sunday, “we’re not China, we can’t build a new hospital in a week. We need to make do with what we already have.”

Although Cornell is partially sponsored by SUNY in the form of four contract colleges, such a directive would likely not affect the University, as its buildings are not state-owned.

“SUNY dorms are state facilities and SUNY personnel are all state employees,” wrote University spokesperson John Carberry. “Cornell does not have state buildings that are used to house students or state employees.”

While New York State boasts among the top-ranked hospitals in the country, Cuomo wrote that the state is ill-equipped to handle the rapid increase of COVID-19 cases — echoing concerns among public health officials that, unless dramatic action is taken, the medical system could quickly become overrun.

So far, the state has reported 950 cases and has witnessed at least seven deaths, as of Monday night. About 20 percent of COVID-19 cases require hospitalization.

New York State collectively has a total of 5,000 hospital and 3,000 ICU beds.

But in a presentation given on Monday, Cuomo suggested that, to proportionally accommodate an influx of coronavirus patients, New York City would require 5,000 additional beds, 1,000 in Nassau County and Suffolk County and 2,000 in Westchester County.

According to Cuomo, mobilizing the Army Corps of Engineers to retrofit existing state facilities, such as college dorms, would be “at this point, our best hope” in meeting the demand of the disease.

The call to action is another aggressive move to scale up New York’s response to the novel coronavirus. Signaling a sense of urgency, in a press conference on Sunday afternoon, Cuomo drew parallels of combating the disease to that of an external enemy attacking U.S. soil: “If you didn’t want to fight the war, you shouldn’t have enlisted in the military.”

Many SUNY campuses currently remain open while in the process of transitioning to online instruction. According to the SUNY Health website, all schools will have contingency plans in place by March 19.

In the letter, the governor also called on Trump to allow states to authorize a larger variety of testing methods and to standardize shutdown thresholds and procedures for businesses, schools and events.

“I’m not playing politics — I dont give a darn about partisanship,” Cuomo said in the Sunday press conference. “This is about Americans protecting American lives. I will work in partnership with the president on this, but he needs to take it seriously.”