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VA Opening Hospital Beds to Non-Veterans In Hard-Hit New York City

Richard Sisk

The VA will open up a total of 50 beds to seriously ill non-veterans who don't have coronavirus to help in New York City's COVID-19 health care crisis, the Department of Veterans Affairs announced Sunday.

The transfer of at least five non-veteran patients to either the Brooklyn or Manhattan VA facilities was already underway Sunday, the VA said in a statement.

The 50 VA beds -- 35 for acute care and 15 for intensive care units -- are part of the increasing response of the federal government and the military to the crisis in New York City. City and state officials have described local hospitals at a breaking point for lack of capacity and equipment.

On Monday, the 1,000-bed hospital ship USNS Comfort is expected to arrive from Norfolk, Virginia, at Pier 90 on Manhattan's West Side to take in non-coronavirus patients.

Also on Monday, the converted Javits Convention Center on the West Side is expected to open to nearly 3,000 non-coronavirus patients, Lt. Gen. Todd Semonite, commander of the Army Corps of Engineers, said at a Pentagon briefing last Friday.

In a statement announcing the opening of 50 VA beds, VA Secretary Robert Wilkie said the VA was "proud to assist the city of New York while continuing its primary mission of caring for our nation's veterans."

The U.S. now has the most confirmed coronavirus cases in the world: more than 131,000 confirmed cases and more than 2,200 deaths nationwide as of midday Sunday.

New York State has become the epicenter of the epidemic in the U.S., and the five boroughs of New York City were the epicenter within the state, according to New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

In a news conference Sunday from Albany, the state capital, Cuomo said that the number of deaths statewide from coronavirus had increased by 237 from Saturday to Sunday.

Statewide, New York had an increase of more than 7,200 confirmed cases overnight, putting the total of confirmed cases in the state at more than 59,500. More than 33,700 of those cases were in New York City.

The total number of deaths in New York State is now more than 750, and more than 520 of those deaths were in New York City.

"This is not going to get better soon," Cuomo said at the news conference. "I can't sit here and say you won't see people pass away -- you will."

When announcing the admission of a limited number of non-veterans to its facilities, VA officials said Sunday that the department was responding to a request from the Federal Emergency Management Agency relayed by New York State.

The decision to treat non-veterans was made after a determination that "this action would not negatively impact veteran care," the VA said.

The VA also indicated that it was prepared to take similar action in other states.

States can ask for VA help through their local department of Health and Human Services regional emergency coordinator, and cities and other local entities should route requests for federal aid through their states, VA officials said.

As of Saturday, the VA had reported a total of more than 770 confirmed cases of coronavirus among veterans nationwide, from Alaska to Florida, and at least 16 deaths -- an increase of seven from Friday.

At least two of the veteran deaths have been at New York City VA facilities.

On March 21, a veteran patient more than 60 years old died at the VA's Bronx Medical Center from complications due to coronavirus, and on March 27 a veteran more than 80 years old died at the Brooklyn facility.

-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com