In normal times, New York City's 911 system fields about 4,000 calls per day for emergency medical services. Three times in the past week, however, the system has seen 7,000 such calls -- roughly comparable to the number of calls the system received during the 9/11 terrorist attacks. And 9/11 was one day, while the coronavirus pandemic has been taxing the system for days at a time and will likely continue to do so for weeks.
The system is so overwhelmed that emergency medical personnel are often forced to make life-or-death decisions: who should receive emergency, life-saving treatment, and who should be left behind? Some patients can possibly be saved by heroic measures such as CPR or intubation. Others are too far gone to try and save.
Paramedics are on the front lines.
One Brooklyn paramedic described a typical day for him. He responded to a call of a 24-year-old man with fever, body aches and a cough that "sounded like a cement mixer." Critically low levels of oxygen were flowing into his lungs, even though the organs were clear. He had a fever of 103 when they took him to the nearest hospital.
Immediately afterward, they received another call -- a 73-year-old man with similar symptoms, also taken to a nearby hospital.
Paramedic Phil Suarez says that he's been dispatched to tiny, cramped apartments in Manhattan's Upper West Side, where whole families appear to be suffering from COVID-19, the respiratory illness that derives from the coronavirus.
Suarez and his colleagues say they've been forced to do their jobs without personal protective equipment. Suarez, in particular, fears that he's either contracted the disease himself or brought it home to his own family -- or both.
"I'm terrified. I honestly don't know if I'm going to survive. I'm terrified of what I've already possibly brought home," Suarez said.
Another paramedic described responding to an attempted suicide call. The patient, a woman, had attempted to take her own life by drinking a liter of vodka. She was a cancer patient whose treatments had been delayed because hospitals are clearing beds to make room for coronavirus patients.
Another paramedic said that she responded to so many cardiac arrests during one of her shifts that the battery on her defibrillator died.
"It does not matter where you are. It doesn't matter how much money you have. This virus is treating everyone equally," she noted.
New York City has become the epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic in the United States. As of this writing, the city has 30,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19, with 672 deaths. Some health experts predict that New York City alone will soon be worse off than Wuhan, China (where the virus is believed to have originated) or Lombardy, Italy, the hardest-hit region in the most impacted country in Europe.