NEW YORK (Reuters) – Doctors and nurses on the front lines of the U.S. coronavirus crisis pleaded on Friday for more protective gear and equipment to treat waves of patients expected to overwhelm hospitals as the number of known U.S. infections surpassed 100,000, with more than 1,500 dead.
Physicians have called attention to a desperate need for additional ventilators, machines that help patients breathe and are widely needed for those suffering from COVID-19, the respiratory ailment caused by the highly contagious novel coronavirus.
Hospitals in New York City, New Orleans, Detroit and other virus hot spots also have sounded the alarm about scarcities of drugs, medical supplies and trained staff as the number of confirmed cases rose by 15,000 on Friday to just over 100,000.
That was down slightly from more than 16,000 new cases reported on Thursday, the largest one-day U.S. surge to date, but kept the United States as the world leader in the number of known infections, having surpassed China and Italy on Thursday.
“We are scared,” said Dr. Arabia Mollette of Brookdale University Hospital and Medical Center in Brooklyn. “We’re trying to fight for everyone else’s life, but we also fight for our lives as well, because we’re also at the highest risk of exposure.”
The United States ranked sixth in death toll among the hardest hit countries, with at least 1,551 lives lost, according to a Reuters tally of official data. Worldwide, confirmed cases rose above 576,000 with 26,455 deaths, the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center reported.
One emergency room doctor in Michigan, an emerging epicenter of the pandemic, said he was using one paper face mask for an entire shift due to a shortage and that hospitals in the Detroit area would soon run out of ventilators.
“We have hospital systems here in the Detroit area in Michigan who are getting to the end of their supply of ventilators and have to start telling families that they can’t save their loved ones because they don’t have enough equipment,” the physician, Dr. Rob Davidson, said in a video he posted on Twitter.
U.S. President Donald Trump on Friday invoked emergency powers to require General Motors Co to start building ventilators after he accused the largest U.S. automaker of “wasting time” during negotiations.
He had previously resisted invoking the Defense Production Act, a Korean War-era statute that gives the president broad procurement powers in national emergencies, despite calls for him to do so from organizations including the American Hospital Association and the American Medical Association.
Instead he had used Twitter to pressure manufacturers to act on their own to convert assembly lines to production of medical gear.
Sophia Thomas, a nurse practitioner at DePaul Community Health Center in New Orleans, where Mardi Gras celebrations late last month fueled a local outbreak in Louisiana’s largest city, said the numbers of coronavirus patients “have been staggering.”
“We are truly a hotbed of COVID-19 here in New Orleans,” she said, adding that her hospital was trying to cope in part by shifting some patients to “telehealth” services that allow them to be evaluated from home.
New York-area doctors say they have had to recycle some protective gear, or resort to the black market.
Dr. Alexander Salerno of Salerno Medical Associates, a general medical practice with offices in northern New Jersey, described going through a “broker” to pay $17,000 for masks and other protective equipment that should have cost about $2,500, and picking them up at an abandoned warehouse.
“You don’t get any names. You get just phone numbers to text,” Salerno said. “And so you agree to a term. You wire the money to a bank account. They give you a time and an address to come to.”
Nurses at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York said they were locking away or hiding N-95 respirator masks, surgical masks and other supplies that are prone to going missing if left unattended for long.
“Masks disappear,” nurse Diana Torres said. “We hide it all in drawers in front of the nurses’ station.”
After days of wrangling, the U.S. Congress passed a $2.2 trillion relief package on Friday, sending the bill to Trump, who promptly signed it into law.
In addition to aiding hospitals, the package will send cash to businesses and unemployed workers suffering from the effects of stay-at-home orders that have had the side effect of strangling the economy.
A number of hotels in New York City, including the famed Plaza Hotel, the St. Regis and the Four Seasons, are making rooms available to medical workers fearful of carrying the virus home to their families after work, or to non-critical care patients, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said.
“This is past a movie plot. Nobody could ever think of this, or be totally prepared for this,” said Eric Neibart, infectious disease specialist and clinical assistant professor at Mount Sinai Hospital. “The scale is unbelievable.”
Marney Gruber, an emergency doctor who works in multiple hospitals around New York City, said commonly used medications were in short supply and hospitals were running out of oxygen tanks.
“These are staples in emergency medicine and ICUs – these are your bread and butter, truly, your very basic essentials,” Gruber said.
At least two New York medical schools, New York University and Columbia, have said they will graduate their fourth-year students early so they can begin treating patients with the coronavirus right away.
Reporting by Gabriella Borter, Roselle Chen, Nick Brown, Maria Caspani, Joseph Ax, Nathan Layne, Peter Szekely, Doina Chiacu, Tim Ahmann, Lisa Shumaker and Stephanie Kelly; Writing by Daniel Trotta; Editing by Frank McGurty, Howard Goller and Daniel Wallis