To prepare for a rising number of confirmed COVID-19 cases, Cayuga Medical Center, Ithaca’s primary hospital, is quickly working to expand its patient capacity and add beds.
Although Tompkins County has so far been spared the devastation that has overwhelmed New York City hospitals in recent days, its number of confirmed coronavirus cases still spiked from one to 87 in just a little over two weeks.
While only two of those individuals are currently hospitalized with COVID-19, CMC has been preparing to increase its volume in anticipation of a possible surge of patients.
According to Dr. David Evelyn, the vice president of medical affairs at Cayuga Medical, the hospital has between 20 and 30 beds in storage that could be deployed immediately to add to its existing 200 beds.
In addition, outside organizations such as the Red Cross could supply cots and more beds have been ordered from CMC’s bed supplier. In a worst-case scenario, even stretchers could be used to increase patient capacity.
“We’re just waiting for the patients, we could put beds. You know, we could put the beds in tomorrow if we needed them,” Evelyn said, who stressed that the hospital is prepared for a potential influx.
Measures to increase the number of beds at CMC come after New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D-N.Y.) ordered hospitals across the state to increase capacity by 50 percent on March 23.
All of these extra beds have to be put somewhere, leading hospital administrators to get creative with what can be considered in-patient space.
“We calculated that we could put two beds in every single room and three beds in every double room,” Evelyn said. “We can also take spaces that are patient spaces, but have been converted to other programs, like our sleep program, or maybe an outpatient testing program and we could put inpatient beds in those areas.”
Although it expects it will be able to accomodate an increased number of patients, CMC is facing the same problem that medical providers nationwide have confronted: a limited supply of personal protective equipment, including masks.
However, this shortage has been partially alleviated by an outpouring of community support, including donations from local physicians, Cornell University and Ithaca College.
In order to save PPE for personnel treating COVID-19 patients directly, CMC is now also increasing its use of telemedicine and pre-screening of patients to decrease risk of infection.
Urgent care hours will also be decreased to 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. from 7 A.M. to 10 P.M., primarily due to a reduced amount of traffic as a result of widespread self-isolation in the community.
However, some CMC staff, dissatisfied with the facility’s current guidelines for PPE rationing, said they bring their own masks and other gear.
“I bring my own mask for the ten hour shift. I don’t want to take from my colleagues or have any negative conversations about it,” said an anonymous CMC clinician, who declined to be interviewed on the record for fear of losing her job.
While hospital guidelines do not recommend that CMC staff wear surgical masks at all times, the clinician worries about being infected with COVID-19 by an asymptomatic patient.
Despite PPE rationing and community donations, administrators expressed concern that a massive increase in patients could cause a severe shortage.
“For now we’re okay. But if we get a huge influx of patients like they’re getting in New York City, then we would probably run out of PPE, unless we could get new supplies from some other source,” Evelyn said.
While the number of coronavirus cases CMC deals with has not increased as rapidly as it has downstate, the possibility of Ithaca facing a similar situation sometime in the future is not completely out of the question, according to Evelyn.
“We haven’t had anyone that has acquired COVID from seeing a patient here at the hospital or at the practices that I know of,” Evelyn said, referring to staff who have fallen ill recently. “[But] there may be some people who are COVID positive because of some contacts they had out in the community.”
According to Evelyn, the biggest barrier to increasing bed capacity at CMC is increasing staffing, a challenge the hospital has not yet undertaken.
“Right now we’re not [increasing staffing],” Evelyn said. “But if we have more demand, we will have to increase staff to take care of all these extra patients.”