New York's hospitals must prepare for an expected surge in coronavirus infections by stockpiling masks and gowns, expanding capacity and identifying retired nurses and doctors who could pitch in, Gov. Andrew Cuomo said Monday.
Cuomo said that with more than 3,500 people now hospitalized statewide for COVID-19 and more cases expected in the coming weeks, hospitals must draw up plans to redistribute patients both within healthcare networks and between networks so that no one hospital becomes overwhelmed, as happened when the pandemic first hit New York last spring.
The 3,500 figure is up from 900 people hospitalized in late June, Cuomo said, and cases will only rise as New Yorkers gather to celebrate the holidays.
"The cases are going to go up," Cuomo said at a briefing in New York City. "I want to make sure our number one priority is hospital capacity. That has always been my nightmare."
Hospitals in Erie County in western New York must stop performing elective surgery as of Friday, Cuomo said.
While much of the focus over the past several months has been on containing the virus through restrictions at bars, restaurants and other businesses, Cuomo said data from contact tracing shows that 65% of infections are now coming from small gatherings.
"The bad news? Family gatherings, the smaller social gatherings have exploded as places where the virus is spreading," Cuomo said.
New Yorkers should be responsible and not host gatherings over the holidays, since law enforcers can't monitor everyone's homes, Cuomo said.
"Government is not capable of enforcing what you do in your home," he said. "It's about people being smart."
Cuomo noted that schools have not been a significant source of virus transmission, and he lauded the decision of Mayor Bill de Blasio to begin reopening New York City school buildings next week.
"The school protocols and the school testings? Great, highly effective. Astonishing how low the levels of infections are in schools, especially K to 8," Cuomo said.
De Blasio said on CNN earlier Monday that while some elementary school students will be back in school buildings next week, middle school and high school students won't return to in-person learning until after the holiday break.
"Obviously, from now until the Christmas break, the focus will be on the younger kids," de Blasio said. "When we come back, my hope is we can then move quickly to middle school and high school."
The Democratic mayor said the staggered approach is necessary because of the amount of COVID-19 testing that is required to open schools safely amid rising infection rates across the city.
De Blasio announced Sunday that school buildings will start reopening Dec. 7 for students whose parents have chosen a mix of in-person and remote learning. Schools have been shuttered since Nov. 19, but de Blasio said weekly COVID-19 testing in all schools will make it possible to reopen safely.
De Blasio had said previously that schools would close when the city hit a threshold of 3% of coronavirus tests coming back positive. That threshold, which the city has exceeded in recent weeks, no longer makes sense, the mayor said.
"What has happened is we've proven the schools can be extraordinarily safe," de Blasio said. "The schools are some of the safest places to be right now in New York City, which is a credit to our educators and our staff and our parents."