ALBANY — In a move area hospital officials are calling a “moral obligation,” Capital Region hospitals have begun accepting COVID-19 transfer patients from overwhelmed New York City hospitals.
Columbia Memorial Health, which is part of the Albany Medical Center network, has not accepted any transfer patients, but CMH officials have indicated that they would be willing to do so.
Albany Medical Center accepted 14 transfer patients from a hospital in Queens on Tuesday. On Thursday, an additional 25 transfer patients were distributed to area hospitals including Ellis Hospital in Schenectady, St. Peter’s Health in Albany and St. Mary’s Hospital in Troy. Officials defended their decision to accept those patients at a press conference at Albany Medical Center on Friday.
Albany Medical Center is coordinating the distribution of transfer patients within the Capital Region. Allocating patients from downstate hospitals happens quickly, and CMH facilities may have been too full with local patients to receive any downstate patients in this first round of transfers, said Dr. Fred Venditti, Albany Medical Center’s general director and executive vice president for system care delivery.
“I know that yesterday they had a fair number of vented patients,” he said. “I want to say that they had at least five patients on ventilators yesterday.”
Columbia Memorial Hospital has seven critical care beds and has plans to increase that number to 17 if necessary, Venditti said.
CMH may receive future transfer patients as New York City hospitals become increasingly unable to manage the high rate of COVID-19 infections.
“We have a call every morning with 12 institutions and Columbia Memorial is part of that,” Venditti, said.
Columbia Memorial Hospital Chief Medical Officer Dr. Clifford Belden and President and CEO Jay Cahalan usually participate on the daily phone call, Venditti said.
“They have said generically that they would accept patients if they have capacity,” said Venditti.
Belden was not present at the press conference, the fourth held at Albany Medical Center since the COVID-19 pandemic began.
Hospital officials must anticipate local need based on the number of positive cases in the community before they agree to accept COVID-19 transfers from New York City hospitals.
An analytics team at Albany Medical Center is using data from area medical facilities to predict regional hospital capacity, officials said.
Until that data can provide an accurate picture of capacity, each hospital must make its own decision when to commit to taking transfer patients.
“Dr. Belden has got to go take a look at what is going on in the hospital, does he have capabilities, who is in the emergency room,” Venditti said. “There is a little bit of an assessment that goes on before he says yes.”
The decision this week to begin accepting transfer patients comes as Gov. Andrew Cuomo warns that the peak could be fast approaching in New York City, the nation’s epicenter of the COVID-19 crisis. The governor’s office is providing logistical assistance to transport patients upstate, area officials said.
“The New York City area is under tremendous stress,” said Dr. Dennis McKenna, who became Albany Medical Center’s president and CEO on April 1. “It was our time to help those people down in New York City.” He noted that accepting transfers is standard practice among large medical facilities, with Albany Medical Center treating more than 16,000 transfer patients in the last 15 years.
By accepting certain transfer patients, Capital Region hospitals are helping to free up space in New York City hospitals, McKenna said. “These emergency departments have 50, 60, 70 people waiting to be seen, so every person we move out helps them and someone else downstate.”
“It doesn’t matter where the call comes from. We are here to take patients in need. We have a moral obligation to do so,” said St. Peter’s Health Partners Chief Clinical Officer Dr. Steven Hanks, echoing other hospital representatives who said their facilities have a moral and professional responsibility to act.
Hospital officials sought to challenge public perception that accepting infected COVID-19 patients from downstate will increase the Capital Region’s rate of infection. The virus is already spreading through community transfer upstate, officials said.
“We already had COVID-19 patients and suspected patients,” Venditti said. The infected cohort is kept separate on special COVID-19 units, often in negative pressure rooms to prevent the virus from spreading to other units in the hospital, he said.
As more health care workers become infected with COVID-19, hospital officials continued to emphasize that they have adequate supplies of PPE, or personal protective equipment, to safeguard staff and patients.
Fifty health care workers at Albany Medical Center have tested positive for COVID-19, officials said.