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Inside a Brooklyn hospital that is overwhelmed with Covid-19 patients and deaths

At Brookdale University Hospital Medical Center in New York, the ICU is at capacity, patient beds line the hallways of the emergency department, and the morgue is overflowing.

Covid-19, Dr. Arabia Mollette said, has turned the Brooklyn-based hospital into “a war zone.”

“A medical war zone,” Mollette, an emergency room physician at Brookdale Hospital, told CNN. “Every day I come, what I see on a daily basis, is pain, despair, suffering and health care disparities.”

This is the reality for many hospitals across New York, which has become the epicenter of the American coronavirus outbreak. As of Sunday evening, there are more than 59,000 confirmed cases in the state, and at least 965 deaths in the state, according to CNN’s tally of US cases.

Brookdale Hospital granted CNN rare access on Sunday to view health care workers’ fight against Covid-19. The hospital is located in Brownsville, one of the poorest neighborhoods in New York City. The Brooklyn borough is one of the hardest hit by the virus, according to city data.

Hospital staffers said they want people to understand how dire the situation is for health care workers, and how the hospital needs more federal resources and help from the public in order to continue combating the coronavirus.

“The hope that we have is that if people be more socially responsible and stay home and do what they can do to flatten this curve, it will help alleviate the pressure off the emergency department,” Mollette said.

Overflow of patients, not enough resources

Brookdale Hospital, which began seeing Covid-19 patients at the beginning of March, said it now has more than 100 patients who have tested positive for the virus, and 78 additional patients are hospitalized as they await results. As of Sunday, at least 20 patients had died after contracting the virus.

The hospital sees over 100,000 patients annually, and has a capacity of about 300 people at any given time, Khari Edwards, the hospital’s vice president of external affairs, told CNN.

But with coronavirus cases rapidly increasing, there has been an influx of patients.

Already, the hospital has started to open up floors that have not been in use for years to make room for more patient beds, Mollette said. The hospital has also converted its pediatric emergency department into a Covid-19 isolation area, she added.

To separate the space from other wings of the hospital, health care workers hung plastic sheets from the walls, and used duct tape to prevent them from falling.

“I can say that every corner every part of the hallway, every room, every space has been filled up to capacity with our patients,” Mollette said.

Inside the ER, a cacophony of coughing filled the room as one nurse walked through rows of filled beds to feed a patient juice.

Meanwhile, the ICU is quieter — as the lulled beep of machines, including ventilators, reverberates.

“Wash your hands” signs hang on the doors of patients’ rooms, reminding those who enter to do the task recommended most by health officials amid the pandemic.

As is the case with many other hospitals across the country, Brookdale Hospital is struggling to keep up with the demand for resources as more patients come in.

“We need gowns, we need gloves we need masks we need more vents (ventilators),” Mollette said. “We need more medical space. We need psychological support as well. It’s not easy coming here when you know what you’re getting ready to face.”

President Donald Trump previously downplayed New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s request for 30,000 more ventilators for the state.

“I don’t believe you need 40,000 or 30,000 ventilators,” Trump told Fox News’ Sean Hannity in an interview last week.

But Dr. Amy Plasencia, chief medical resident at Brookdale Hospital, said the hospital has “a critical shortage of ventilators in relation to the numbers that we are seeing.”

Ventilators are used on serious cases of Covid-19 to help patients breathe who are struggling to do so on their own, Plasencia said.

Once patients are hooked up to the machines, they generally need to continue using them for one to two weeks or longer, she said.

“Certainly no physician wants to be put in a position where they have to triage treatments based on resource availability,” she said. “But in this national crisis that is where we may be heading.”

Brookdale Hospital, like others in the state, is so strapped for ventilators that it has started looking at ways to repurpose older models that have been out of use, and adapting anesthesia machines to use as ventilators, Plasencia said.

The hospital’s morgue is also overflowing.

Edwards said the morgue can usually hold around 20 people, and the hospital’s already “gone over that” number.

The hospital now has a refrigerated truck provided by the state to help with the overflow of bodies.

“What’s more so terrifying is you have family members who can’t come pick up normally as they lose a family member,” Edwards said. “Funeral homes are swamped.”

Health care workers have already begun preparing additional beds in anticipation of having even more patients in the coming weeks, Edwards said.

Hospital workers stay away from their own families to protect them

Wearing protective gear is now considered essential at most hospitals to avoid spreading the coronavirus.

At Brookdale Hospital on Sunday, almost all health care employees — including janitorial staff, food workers, nurses and doctors — made sure to protect themselves by covering up from head-to-toe while working in patient areas.

The standard “uniform” for any health care employee as they brave the packed hospital includes gloves, face shields, surgical masks, gowns or lab coats, and covers for their hair and shoes.

With the gear on, some say they feel safe — at least for now.

Lab technician Andrei Legoun, who began his shift around 7:30 a.m., is among the hospital employees at the frontlines every day.

Right now, he is focused on turning around dozens of Covid-19 tests at a time at the hospital.

It can take anywhere from three to six hours to get back test results, Legoun said.

The hospital said it is now offering a new, rapid test, which Legoun said can do as many as 300 tests in a day. Legoun said he hopes they will eventually be able to complete up to 500 tests a day.

Legoun said he is not nervous about exposure to the virus — the samples he gets are placed in a water bath to deactivate the virus before he tests them. Plus, he added, “I have a mask.”

Still, Legoun said he has spent the last two months away from his family, and has avoided seeing anyone face-to-face — even his daughter and girlfriend.

“In case I’m a carrier for some reason, I don’t want to pass it along to them,” he said.

Mollette also hasn’t seen her family in months, and sleeps in a separate bedroom from her fiancé to protect him.

“I’m going to be honest with you: I don’t really sleep that well at night,” Mollette said. “I’m worried about my family, I worry about my safety. I’m worry about my colleagues. I worry about how the shift is going to be the next time I come. I worry about if a family member is going to come and be patient as well.”

For Plasencia, protecting fellow hospital employees — particularly residents and interns — is of equal importance, as they collectively continue to work on the frontlines of the crisis.

“We are trying to sustain morale,” she said. “And certainly in this outbreak we are providing emotional support for each other, but it’s a very difficult time for health care.”

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