Some of New York City's biggest hospitals remain shuttered weeks after Sandy, and the loss of more than 2,000 patient beds has left the city's remaining hospital network vulnerable, doctors and nurses say.
“With these beds out, the capacity to deal with patients is limited,” said Dr. Peter Schlegel, chief urologist at New York-Presbyterian Hospital.
Sandy's floodwaters severely damaged NYU Medical Center, Bellevue Hospital, Coney Island Hospital, and Manhattan's VA Medical Center. Patients who would have sought care at those facilities are now turning to other hospitals.
Dr. Irwin Redlener, director of Columbia University's National Center for Disaster Preparedness, says the temporary closures of NYU Medical Center and Bellevue Hospital have left the city less equipped to weather a public health episode that would draw thousands to already overcrowded hospitals.
"By closing hospitals, we've stressed and stretched the limits of the other hospitals that are still open," said Redlener, who was recently named a co-chair to the New York State Ready Commission, a task force assembled to study emergency preparedness in the aftermath of Sandy. "So in a sense, we're just keeping our fingers crossed that we don't have to confront a flu epidemic, an earthquake, or another storm. Any of these things would push us to the brink in a way that would be very difficult to handle."
Schlegel estimates New York Hospital in Queens is serving 112 percent of its maximum patient load.
Sandy's effect on the New York City health system isn't only quantified by the loss of hospital rooms. The storm also crippled other medical support services: ambulette service, for example, has slowed drastically because so many patients are being transferred and shuffled.
"There are so many patients that have to be moved back and forth," said Jasenia Perez, who waited four hours before an ambulette came to Beth Israel Hospital to pick up her father, who uses a wheelchair.
Some ambulettes were also washed away in the floods, putting a strain on the available supply.
Sandy also wiped out approximately 3,500 nursing home beds, and physicians are now having trouble discharging elderly nursing home residents with nowhere to go, Schlegel said.
On Friday, dozens of unionized nurses rallied on the steps of City Hall to implore Mayor Bloomberg to open city-owned hospitals faster.
"We need our city and state officials to do everything in their power to reopen the hospitals as soon as possible," said Judy Sheridan-Gonzalez, vice president of the New York State Nurses Association.
Bloomberg has already pledged $300 million to repair flood-damaged infrastructure at Bellevue and other medical facilities operated by the New York City Health and Hospitals Corporation.
Mayoral spokeswoman Samantha Levine praised the cooperation among the city's functional hospitals.
“We are fortunate that our hospitals had surge capacity during this crisis and they are providing care to those who need it as we focus on getting all hospitals up and running,” Levine said.
A spokesman for Bellevue Hospital said the facility would reopen by the beginning of February, and the hospital's emergency department would likely open by the end of November.
Ian Michaels, a spokesman for the city Health and Hospitals Corporation, said damage was still being assessed at Bellevue.
An NYU spokesperson declined to itemize the damage to that facility but expected some announcement on a timetable for reopening to be made soon.