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The Queens Hospital Center emergency department has a capacity of 60, but on its worst night of the pandemic, more than 180 patients lay on stretchers in the observation bays and hallways. Alarms rang incessantly as exhausted doctors rushed from crisis to crisis.

Less than four miles away, a temporary hospital opened the next morning, on April 10. The facility, which was built at the U.S.T.A. Billie Jean King National Tennis Center to relieve the city’s overwhelmed hospitals, had hundreds of beds and scores of medical professionals trained to treat virus patients.

But in the entire month that the site remained open, it treated just three patients from the Queens Hospital Center emergency department, records show. Overall, the field hospital cost more than $52 million and served only 79 patients.

The pandemic has presented unique challenges for officials grappling with a fast-moving and largely unpredictable foe. But the story of the Billie Jean King facility illustrates the missteps made at every level of government in the race to create more hospital capacity in New York. It is a cautionary tale for other states now facing surges in cases and for New Yorkers bracing for a possible second wave.

Doctors at the Queens Hospital Center, a public hospital in Jamaica, and at other medical centers wanted to transfer patients to Billie Jean King. But they were blocked by bureaucracy, turf battles and communication failures, according to internal documents and interviews with workers.

As the coronavirus spread in March, the federal government, state leaders, city officials and hospital executives all began creating their own temporary medical facilities, at times competing against each other. Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s office oversaw most transfers to the centers, but city officials say the state did not closely coordinate with other players.

The federal government’s biggest contribution, the Navy hospital ship U.S.N.S. Comfort, arrived in New York with great fanfare but initially did not accept coronavirus patients at all, prompting one hospital executive to call it “a joke.”


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