Under Coronavirus Strain, U.S. Doctors Decry Shortages of Medicine, Equipment

By Gabriella Borter and Joseph Ax

March 30, 2020

NEW YORK (Reuters) - U.S. doctors and nurses on the front lines of the coronavirus outbreak on Friday pleaded for more equipment to treat a wave of new patients expected to swamp capacity, going so far as to ask President Donald Trump to invoke emergency powers.

Doctors have called attention to a desperate need for more ventilators, machines that help patients breathe and are widely needed for those suffering from COVID-19, the respiratory ailment caused by the novel coronavirus.

Hospitals in New York, New Orleans and other hot virus spots sounded the alarm about a shortage of medicine, supplies and trained staff as the U.S. caseload surpassed 91,000, making the United States the world leader in confirmed cases.

"This is past a movie plot. Nobody could ever think of this, or be totally prepared for this. You're going to have to wing it on the fly," said Eric Neibart, infectious disease specialist and clinical assistant professor at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York. "The scale is unbelievable."

The United States ranked sixth in deaths with 1,362, according to a Reuters tally of official data. Worldwide, confirmed cases rose above 551,000 with nearly 25,000 deaths.

While coastal states have captured much of the attention, counties surrounding Chicago and Detroit were also emerging as areas of concern, said Deborah Birx, coordinator of the White House Coronavirus Task Force.

One emergency room doctor in Michigan, an emerging epicenter of the pandemic, said that 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.

The doctor, Rob Davidson, urged Trump to use the Defense Production Act to procure more test kits and 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," Davidson said in a video he posted on Twitter.

With the crisis mounting, Trump has resisted invoking the Defense Production Act, an emergency law granting him broad procurement authority. Instead, he has used Twitter to pressure manufacturers to act on their own.

Trump demanded that General Motors begin producing ventilators "NOW." He also told Ford to "GET GOING ON VENTILATORS, FAST!"

In a separate tweet, Trump said that the federal government had purchased a large quantity of ventilators from a number of companies, and that details would be announced later on Friday.

After days of wrangling, the U.S. Congress passed a $2.2 trillion relief package on Friday, sending the bill to Trump, who was expected to promptly sign 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.

DOCTORS PLEAD FOR HELP

In New York state, where there have been 44,635 cases and 519 deaths, Governor Andrew Cuomo has said any coronavirus scenario would overwhelm the healthcare system.

After turning a convention center into a temporary hospital in a week, the state plans to build eight temporary hospitals in a campaign to increase the number of hospital beds from 53,000 to 140,000.

Some hospitals are converting cafeterias and atriums into space to house intensive care patients.

A number of hotels in New York City, including the famed Plaza Hotel, the St. Regis and the Four Seasons, will make rooms available to medical workers fighting coronavirus or to non-critical care patients, Cuomo said.

A little luxury would be welcomed by doctors and nurses working long hours while exposing themselves to the virus and coping with the loss of patients.

On Friday, the announcement of the death of Kious Kelly, a nurse manager at New York's Mount Sinai Hospital, highlighted the sacrifices being made by medical professionals.

"I remember him running crazy, checking on us and making sure we were OK," Diana Torres, a nurse at Mount Sinai, told Reuters.

Torres and other colleagues have also infused their tributes with angry messages about the shortages.

"It seems like we are fighting the government, (the hospital) administration and the virus," Torres said. "We can tackle one, but not all at once."

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.

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