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Why New York’s health care system is still ‘in a state of shock’

New York state is seeing signs of improvement in its COVID-19 outbreak, including a reduced hospitalization rate. But in New York City alone, an estimated 35,000 people are hospitalized with the virus -- meaning front-line health care staff still face an enormous challenge. William Brangham talks to Susan Mangicaro of International Medical Corps, a group assisting city hospitals during the crisis.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The number of hospitalizations in New York state has slowed, a pattern that has been consistent for more than a week now.

    But to give you some perspective, more than 15,000 people in the state have died from COVID-related complications. In New York City alone, 35,000 people are estimated now to be hospitalized with COVID-19.

    William Brangham gets a front-line dispatch from a group assisting the hospitals there.

  • William Brangham:

    The International Medical Corps is working right now in New York City, the epicenter of America's outbreak.

    They're bringing in volunteers from across the country to help four different hospitals to help support the people who are working in those hospitals as they deal with COVID-19 patients.

    Susan Mangicaro is the New York coordinator for the International Medical Corps. And she joins me now from the Javits Center in New York.

    Susan, thank you very, very much for being here.

    Could you just start off by telling us — you're in New York City. Most of our viewers are elsewhere in the country, watching what's going on in New York. Could you give us a sense, broadly, of what you have been seeing over the last weeks, the last month or so?

  • Susan Mangicaro:

    When we arrived on April 2, it was really at the peak of the storm here.

    I have served in disasters for International Medical Corps across the world, and I have never seen anything like this in the United States. It was truly unprecedented. The hospitals were completely overwhelmed. Staff was — was basically in shock and traumatized from having to make some choices that we're not accustomed to in the United States, and simply the number of deaths of patients dying alone.

    The supplies that were needed were eventually brought in. But, initially, things were very, very tight. Luckily, things are slightly improved this week, but still quite devastating. The system is in a state of shock.

  • William Brangham:

    As you alluded to, the International Medical Corps normally responds to wars, conflicts, disasters in other nations.

    Do you ever stop for a moment and just sit back and think, we're doing this here in the middle of New York City?

  • Susan Mangicaro:

    Yes, all the time. It's — it's surreal.

    Seeing and witnessing in hospital emergency departments the stress that the system was under, it's something that, again, you're kind of not — we're just not accustomed to this in the United States. You're used to seeing that perhaps in resource-poor regions or regions that have been devastated from natural disasters or work conflict areas, but certainly not here in our own country.

  • William Brangham:

    Are there lessons that you have learned from doing humanitarian work of this sort in other nations that are — that's applicable here?

  • Susan Mangicaro:

    Absolutely.

    We have done this both in disaster response, but infectious disease outbreak from Ebola to cholera. We know how to set up quickly. We know how to bring in the people that are accustomed to dealing with trauma very rapidly. And we know — and we have support from wonderful partners and organizations that allow us to do what we do and bring in the relief where it's needed most.

  • William Brangham:

    You're obviously there to help backstop the front-line health care workers that are working in these hospitals, and provide relief and sort of rotate in when they need it.

    How are those people doing, from your experience?

  • Susan Mangicaro:

    So, I will tell you from both perspectives.

    We have done a number of things here. We have brought in emergency field shelters for them to use as surge capacity. We have brought in supplies and PPE.

    But most important, we have brought in medical staff to help relieve those overburdened staff workers. Some facilities were down 25 percent of patients because — or of staff, because they were COVID-positive and sick.

    And those that were there were working very long shifts and in very critical areas that the hospitals had to adapt to.

  • William Brangham:

    You're standing there in the Javits Center, which we know was an — is an overflow, a big convention center now turned into an overflow hospital.

    We have been seeing some reports that New York state and New York City might be bending its curve a little bit, and seeing some plateauing of cases. Has that been your experience thus far?

  • Susan Mangicaro:

    Yes, certainly, in the emergency department, the number of admissions are down. That is help, providing some relief and to decompress a little bit.

    However, if you look at the number of patients still in the intensive care unit, and the acuity level of those patients, they're still at capacity, if not over, beginning to decompress some.

    So there is a little sense of relief here in the health care system. They're — they're very trepidatious about backing off, because the concern is, what if it — what if it skyrockets again? We certainly do not want to see what happened the first time around happen again.

    And I don't think it will. I think one of the biggest lessons for all of us is that, you know, preparedness is really important.

  • William Brangham:

    All right, Susan Mangicaro from the International Medical Corps, thank you very, very much.

    And thank you for all the work that you're doing.

  • Susan Mangicaro:

    Thank you so much.

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