TRENTON — New Jersey health officials on Saturday sent out a "crisis alert" for medical volunteers to step forward as a crushing surge of patients begins to overwhelm hospitals.

The request comes as the state's death toll from COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the novel coronavirus, surpasses the number of residents who died on 9/11.

Health officials had anticipated a rush of patients to outmatch hospital bed capacity in North Jersey sometime by mid April. But Health Commissioner Judith Persichilli said Saturday that the surge had already begun.

On Friday night, three hospitals had to divert patients because of a lack of critical care beds. Another six hospitals in North Jersey had to divert because of a lack of staff.

Various hospitals in the north have been on divert status some time this week, meaning that ambulances were being asked to take patients elsewhere. Patients who show up are not turned away.

"We need volunteers," Persichilli said.

The state last month began planning for this moment, slashing red tape in order to allow out-of-state medical practitioners and professionals with inactive licenses to work on the front lines.

Rutgers University also graduated 195 medical students a month early so that they could go to work at hospitals as soon as possible.

The state's coronavirus website — — includes a page where volunteers can sign up.

New Jersey on Saturday reported 4,331 additional cases and 200 new deaths, for a total of 34,124 cases and 846 deaths since the first week of March.

The hardest-hit counties are in North Jersey, with Bergen recording 5,760 cases and 179 deaths.

A federal field hospital set up at the Meadlowlands Exposition Center in Secaucus is expected to open on Monday. Field hospitals also will open April 1 in Edison and April 14 in Atlantic City.

In addition to a lack of medical personnel, New Jersey officials are working to fill the gap in medical supplies.

New Jersey has collected 10 million pieces of personal protective equipment but needs more.

The state has been expanding its 2,000 critical-care bed capacity with a goal of 4,000. Hospitals have been placing beds in empty rooms, with one even converting part of its cafeteria to take care of patients, Persichilli said.

As of Friday night, New Jersey hospitals had 4,000 patients with confirmed COVID-19. Another 2,000 patients were awaiting test results. Of those confirmed cases, 1,494 were in critical care and 1,263 were on ventilators.

The state currently has a supply of 2,400 ventilators. Murphy has said he is requesting another thousand ventilators from the federal government. The state also is repurposing anesthesia machines, collecting unused ventilators from ambulatory surgery centers and exploring the possibility of having multiple patients share a single ventilator in order to fill a projected gap of 6,000 machines.

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