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COVID

Pixabay photo

By Leah S. Dunaief

Leah Dunaief

COVID caught me. After two and a half years of bobbing and weaving, trying to elude the virus, I finally have been felled. It’s like being shot on the last day of the war. 

I did all the right things. I avoided crowds, driving back from my South Carolina vacation at the outbreak of the pandemic in March 2020 instead of using my return plane ticket. I stopped going to the opera and to Broadway shows in New York City. I didn’t eat in restaurants, even after they reopened, for fear of who might be harboring pathogens at the next table. We closed the office to all but those with appointments. We ordered masks for the staff by the dozens and hand sanitizer by the gallon. We practiced social distancing at the bank, that is, before the bank closed its doors and moved away. We stopped holding events, such as “People of the Year” and “Cooks, Books and Corks” and “Reader’s Choice” that might turn into superspreaders. My family and I zoomed rather than visited. Our family holiday celebrations and vacations were suspended. And we took to our computers, to the extent we were able, for everything from classroom learning to shopping for toilet paper.

Remember all that?

Well, as much as we would like to declare the pandemic over, as President Joe Biden (D) recently did, the virus is still with us. I stopped social distancing, then recently became casual about wearing my mask. I started getting together, first with family, then with close friends, then with business colleagues. Recently, I have been eating inside a couple of restaurants. I stopped asking every repairman to please wear a mask in my house. I pushed COVID phobia way down in my consciousness.

Then I got it.

There are, of course, some differences between catching COVID early on and now. The health care professionals know so much more now about treating the disease. Hospitalizations are fewer but still some 32,000 daily, intubations are less common. But people are still dying, some 400-500 a day, to put numbers on it. Through Sept. 19, Suffolk County reported more than one death per day for the month, according to the Suffolk County Department of Health.

“We’ve had two million cases reported over the last 28 days, and we know underreporting is substantial,” Dr. Michael T. Osterholm, an infectious disease specialist at the University of Minnesota, was quoted in the Tuesday edition of The New York Times. He continued that COVID-19 was the No. 4 cause of death in the country.

Many of us were feeling what Biden was expressing. Yes, we have vaccines and medicines now that successfully hold the pathogen at bay, and most people have every expectation of recovering. Nonetheless, it has been a dreaded disease, especially for those of a certain age or with underlying conditions. With me, it started as a little dry cough throughout the afternoon, hardly noticeable. By nightfall, the cough had deepened and a headache began. The next day, the miserable irritation at the back of the throat started. By the end of the day, my temperature began to climb, eventually four degrees, and my body ached.

Of course, my doctor was on vacation that week, but the backup staff responded valiantly. They called me in for THE test, and when it was positive, they gave me three options. I could go to the Emergency Room and get an infusion of monoclonal antibodies, which would take an hour (not including the inevitable wait.) They could phone in a prescription for paxlovid, and I could take three pills in the morning, then three at night, for five days. They spelled out the side effects of both treatments, which didn’t sound too cheerful. Or I could just monitor the situation, drinking plenty of liquids, taking some Tylenol and see how it goes.

I chose the paxlovid.

Yes, it causes a metallic taste after it’s ingested. But it seems to have worked. 

Will I be as cavalier about relaxing precautions? No, I don’t think so. It is possible to get it again, and I REALLY don’t want it again.  I will get the next booster when I am eligible, I will continue to wear a mask regardless of what those around me are doing, and I will limit my dining, to the extent possible, to the great outdoors.

By Raymond Janis 

At the Shea Theatre, Suffolk County Community College Ammerman campus, County Executive Steve Bellone (D) delivered his State of the County address May 18.

The county executive started his speech with a moment of silence to honor the lives lost in the Buffalo gun tragedy. 

“We continue to grieve for those who were lost, for the Buffalo community and, most importantly, for the families that have been directly impacted by this incomprehensible act of hate,” he said. “We must speak out against hateful rhetoric that is contrary to the American creed and stand up for what we do believe. This requires that we continue to celebrate our diversity here and recognize it for what it is — a strength.”

County legislators onstage during the event, above. Photo from Bellone’s Flickr page

COVID-19 recovery

The county executive acknowledged the many challenges of leading the administration through the public health crisis caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. “In March of 2020, life as we knew it shut down,” he said. “The world came to a halt and Suffolk County was at the epicenter of the COVID-19 global pandemic in our state and in our nation.”

Bellone reported that the county has lost over 4,400 residents to the virus. As normalcy slowly returns, he said that the pandemic has taught valuable lessons.

“One of the clearest takeaways for me is the importance of public service,” he said. “During this county’s darkest hour, our employees did it all. While much of the rest of the world was on lockdown, county employees ensured critical operations did not stop.” He added, “It is fitting that this year’s State of the County is here at Suffolk County Community College’s Ammerman campus as this was the location for one of our first mass-vaccination sites.”

Human resources 

One of Bellone’s points of emphasis during the address was the need for greater human resources personnel in county government. Despite its size, Bellone said that the county government still operates without a fully functional human resources department. 

“Human resources, to the extent that it has existed in this government, has been done on an ad hoc basis,” the county executive said. “Commissioners or department heads who are not human resource professionals perform these functions when a problem occurs or a crisis arises.”

Bellone considers this no way to run an organization, especially one as large and impactful to the lives of residents as the Suffolk County government. He likened human resources to military supply units.

“Operating departments without effective human resources is like the military trying to operate without its supply units,” he said, adding, “You can have the best fighting force in the world, but if those support units are ineffective, the mission will be undermined.” 

Through the addition of the latest HR software and new organizational practices, he suggested the county can save $18 million per year in payroll operation costs alone. 

Investing in the future

The county executive called the Long Island Rail Road a critical asset. “Nearly two centuries after its tracks were laid, that initial investment is still reaping extraordinary returns for the region,” he said. 

Bellone said the county is taking two significant leaps forward with both the East Side Access and Third Track projects. 

The county executive announced a new project called the Midway Crossing, which proposes to create two new public facilities which have long been under consideration: the Long Island Convention Center and a north terminal at MacArthur Airport. 

“It is crazy that a region of our size and significance, of nearly 3 million people, with incredible innovation and natural assets, adjacent to the largest and most important city in the nation, has no convention center,” he said. “A convention center would bring thousands of people and businesses to our region every year from other parts of the country, importantly bringing new dollars into our local economy.”

In a grand plan, Bellone envisions this convention center will be connected to both a new state-of-the-art north airport terminal at MacArthur Airport and to the main line of the LIRR. 

“The convention center attendees would conveniently and easily fly in and out of MacArthur Airport, and if a flight wasn’t available they would still have the ability to take the train from either JFK or LaGuardia,” he said. “Every great region must have a great regional airport and no one can deny that Long Island is one of the great regions in the nation.”

Bellone also foresees other opportunities to integrate the regional economy along the Ronkonkoma Branch line of the LIRR. He proposes relocating the “wholly underutilized” Yaphank station to create the Brookhaven National Laboratory Station, “effectively connecting this global institution to MacArthur Airport and the larger innovation ecosystem in the region by mass transit.”

Environmental quality

County Executive Steve Bellone, above, delivers the State of the County address. Photo from Bellone’s Flickr page

The county executive highlighted some of the environmental initiatives that his administration is working on. He said this region is currently on the front lines of the battle against climate change.

“As an island, we know that we are on the front lines of climate change,” Bellone said. “By taking action, we are not only helping to protect our region in the future, but we are creating economic opportunities in the near term as well.”

He also discussed the need for more charging stations as drivers throughout the county continue to transition to electric vehicles. He announced that two-dozen public libraries in each of the 10 towns in the county have partnered with the administration in the development of a charge-sharing network.

Suffolk County has also emerged as one of the centers of the offshore wind industry in the region, according to Bellone. “This is an industry that will have a more than $12 billion economic impact on New York,” he said. “Suffolk County is well positioned to benefit from the new supply chains and the creation of approximately 7,000 new jobs.”

The county has also reached out to businesses and collaborated with local colleges to establish workforce training programs that will prepare residents for these new jobs. 

Opioid crisis

Exacerbated by the pandemic, ending the opioid epidemic remains near the top of Bellone’s list of priorities. He said opioids have wreaked havoc upon the county, causing horrific damage for users and their families.

“After years of steady progress, the pandemic created unprecedented circumstances of fear, isolation and anxiety that led to an increase in overdoses — 374 confirmed [fatal] cases last year alone,” he said. 

“If we want to be part of the solution, then we need to do what the Greatest Generation did: Put our heads down and build. Build our families first and then do our part to build stronger communities.” — Steve Bellone

The Greatest Generation

Bellone concluded his address on a positive note. With war again raging in Europe, the county executive reminded the audience of the example of the Greatest Generation.

“The attack on Ukraine is the kind of naked aggression against a sovereign nation in Europe that we have not witnessed since the end of World War II,” he said. “The images and the videos that we see coming out of Ukraine are absolutely devastating and heartbreaking.” He added, “I don’t think that it is any coincidence that after more than 75 years of peace in Europe, forged by the sacrifices of American veterans, that we’re seeing this kind of aggression happen just as this Greatest Generation slowly, but inevitably, fades into history.”

Bellone said it is important to honor the legacy of the Greatest Generation as these Americans had laid the foundation for a future of peace. “They won the war and then they came home and built a better future for all of us,” he said. “If we want to be part of the solution, then we need to do what the Greatest Generation did: Put our heads down and build. Build our families first and then do our part to build stronger communities.” 

Many doctors are suggesting people learn to live with the virus and begin returning to usual activities such as going to the movies. Photo from Pixabay

Dr. Gregson Pigott went to the movies this week.

While the activity would be considered mundane in 2019, the decision to go to the theater to catch a flick is yet another example of how local doctors, or, in this case, commissioner of the Suffolk County Department of Health Services, is practicing what he preaches.

“We need to learn to live with the virus,” said Pigott, who has also been to a few Brooklyn Nets basketball games. Pigott, who is not using a mask except in situations where it is required, such as on a plane or on public transit, suggested people are “trying to resume life as it was pre-COVID.”

While the percentage of positive tests has risen, the numbers haven’t raised any alarm bells.

The percentage of COVID positive tests increased to a seven-day average of 2.6% as of April 2, according to figures from the New York State Department of Health.

That figure is higher than it had been in the weeks prior, when the percentage dipped below 2%.

“I certainly expected this,” Dr. Sean Clousten, associate professor of Public Health at Stony Brook University explained in an email. “I suspect this increase is due to unmasking at public schools because many kids who are infected are asymptomatic or the symptoms are different.”

Pigott said the current symptoms for the newer variant of omicron, called BA.2, which is becoming the dominant strain across the country and through much of the world, includes stuffy noses, scratchy throat and a slight cough.

Clousten added that the symptoms can also appear more like a bad stomach bug.

Second booster

Recently, the Food and Drug Administration approved a second booster for people over 50 and for those who are immunocompromised and who had a first booster more than four months ago.

Pigott said he would urge people who are over 65 or those who are immunocompromised to consider getting another jab.

“Most of the general population is fine with the three-shot regimen,” Pigott said. “Your body will recognize any kind of COVID infection and deal with it quickly.”

Dr. Sharon Nachman, chief of the Division of Pediatric Infectious Diseases at Stony Brook Children’s Hospital, indicated in an email that Stony Brook has been “advocating for switching vaccines.”

Switching vaccines could mean triggering a different response to the shot for the second booster, Nachman added.

Data about a second booster shows that the shot provides “good protection” against serious COVID, Nachman said. “Will it protect against any infection (meaning you might get a runny nose, cough or upper respiratory infection)? Not really.”

Nachman urged people to consult with their primary care doctor to decide whether to take a booster. What people are doing and where they are going can and should affect that decision.

Finally, daily activities such as going back to a crowded office or starting to take New York City transit could be “excellent reasons” to get a booster, she said.

Nachman plans to get a booster, although she is working on the best timing for another shot.

“Before I travel abroad is key to making sure I have my booster and am protected,” Nachman added.

Conferences

Nachman is encouraged that people are returning to in-person conferences and other activities.

“It will be great to have people starting to get back to routine living, and that means being with other people,” she explained in an email.

She urged people to stay at home if they don’t feel well.

“Now is not the time to push to go to that meeting or get together with extended family, since you might just be responsible for getting someone else sick,” she explained.

She suggested people should be patient and understanding of others who choose to wear masks or continue to practice social distancing.

“Don’t shame anyone who is wearing a mask,” Nachman advised. “If that is what it takes to get them together with you in public, go for it.”

In another sign of a return to a pre-pandemic life, Pigott suggested that the Health Department was planning to direct more resources to tracking illnesses like Lyme disease.

Famotidine molecule Image courtesy of Wikipedia

By Daniel Dunaief

An over-the-counter stomach-soothing medication may also relieve some of the symptoms of mild to moderate COVID-19.

Tobias Janowitz Photo courtesy of CSHL

In a study recently published in the journal Gut, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Assistant Professor Tobias Janowitz and a team of collaborators at CSHL and The Feinstein Institutes for Medical Research at Northwell Health demonstrated that Famotidine, the active ingredient in Pepcid, shortened the duration of symptoms for a diverse patient group of adults soon after developing COVID-19 symptoms.

In a placebo-controlled study, people taking 80 milligrams of Famotidine three times a day reported that symptoms such as headaches declined after 8.2 days, compared with 11.4 days for patients who were taking the placebo.

“We think that the results are preliminary, but encouraging,” Janowitz explained in an email. 

The research, which included 55 volunteers, may offer health care providers another tool to help treat mild to moderate cases of COVID-19. In the clinical study, the use of Famotidine helped reduce a potentially overactive inflammatory response without suppressing the immune system’s efforts to ward off the virus.

Participants in the study received Famotidine or placebo pills along with a host of instruments they could use at home to gather clinical data about themselves, including a cellular activated Apple iPad, a scale, thermometer, fitness tracker, spirometer to measure air flow in and out of the lungs and a pulse oximeter, which measured oxygen levels by taking a reading over a person’s fingernails.

The protocol for the study allowed volunteers to stay home, where they gathered results from the instruments and reported on their health and any symptoms they felt. Technicians came to the home of each volunteer on the first, seventh, 15th, and 28th days after entering the clinical trial.

Researchers and doctors involved in the analysis of the effectiveness of COVID believe this remote approach to participating in clinical trials could prove a safe and effective way to conduct research for other diseases.

“In today’s virtual world, our clinical trial strategy has significant implications for how to study new drugs in patients at home,” Dr. Kevin Tracey, president and CEO of the Feinstein Institutes, explained in a Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory news brief.

Janowitz added that other studies could also use testing protocols at home, including for other diseases. “We are looking forward to employing it to help develop better treatments for people with cancer,” which is the disease at the center of his research, he explained.

The CSHL Assistant Professor focuses on the whole body response to cancer, although many of the biological considerations are transferable to other diseases.

Pivot to COVID

According to Janowitz, “It was relatively easy for us to pivot to COVID research when it was a global area of unmet need.” 

The researchers chose Famotidine because of encouraging studies and from a case series, Janowitz explained. They also found a potential mechanism of action where Famotidine blocked the H2 receptor, which encouraged them to move to a phase 2 randomized clinical trial.

The researchers were pleased that the participants in this small trial included people from a range of ages and ethnic groups. Nearly two thirds of patients, who were 18 years and older, were from black, mixed-race or Hispanic communities.

“Patients with different ancestry may have different responses to this disease,” Janowitz explained. “It helps to learn about the generalizability of the results.”

In a CSHL news brief, Nicole Jordan-Martin, executive director for New York City Health + Hospitals, added that “accessible, safe and low-cost outpatient treatment options are a priority in our global efforts to combat COVID-19.” Northwell and New York City Health + Hospitals provided care for the communities most in need of support for New York City, she added.

The collaborators were also encouraged by their teamwork.

“Our institutions worked extremely well together to face challenges the pandemic posed, like offering digital solutions and reaching populations who struggled for access to care,” Dr. Christina Brennan, vice president of clinical research at the Feinstein Institute and co-investigator of the trial, said in the news brief. 

“From screening patients to organizing home delivery of the equipment and medication, this sets a new model for future trials and convenience for participants.”

Janowitz described the safety profile of Famotidine as “excellent” and said it “appears to have few interactions with other drugs and very few side effects in general.”

To be sure, Janowitz cautioned doctors and patients not to stock up on Famotidine before researchers conduct additional studies.

“Our trial is not conclusive and an early phase clinical trial (phase 1 or 2) is not sufficient to inform clinical practice,” he wrote.

Additionally without further study, researchers don’t know the best potential dose and dosing interval for this possible treatment. At this point, they know how long the drug stays in the blood and the strength of its binding to its receptor.

A dose of 20 milligrams per day or less may be too little to achieve an effect, but “we do not know this for certain,” Janowitz explained.

While researchers agreed that further studies were necessary to answer key questions, they believed that the results from this research could provide fodder for studies outside of the COVID world.

“It is possible that sustained inflammation contributes to illness in other contexts and changing this inflammation would be beneficial,” Janowitz wrote. “This will have to be explored separately. Importantly, the methods used in this trial are also transferrable, so we have learned a lot of important information” from this research.

Stock photo

The percentage of positive COVID-19 tests in Suffolk County continues to plummet, raising expectations of more mask-optional or mask-free options for businesses and public places in the weeks and months ahead.

The percentage of positive tests, which the Omicron wave caused to crest in the mid to high twenties in the first few weeks after the start of the year, continues to plunge into the low single digits.

Indeed, as of Feb. 20, the seven-day average for positive tests was down to 2.2%, which is considerably lower than the mid to high 20% tests in the first few weeks of January, according to public information from the New York State Department of Health.

“The data are very promising and supportive of the idea that masks may not be necessary in social settings,” Sean Clouston, associate professor in the Program in Public Health and the Department of Family, Population and Preventive Medicine at the Renaissance School of Medicine at Stony Brook University, explained in an email.

A spring and summer that lifted some pandemic rules would relieve the strain of a public health threat that claimed the lives of community members, shut down businesses, altered school learning environments and created a mental health strain.

Dr. Gregson Pigott, commissioner of the Suffolk County Department of Health Services, explained that the decline in positive tests was “expected” and that it was “reassuring that the predictions held.”

The Health Service Commissioner is hoping, unless new, more virulent variants develop that “we will enter into a period of respite from COVID-19.

Pigott, however, added that Suffolk County hospitals still had COVID patients. People over 65 have seen the greatest decrease in hospitalizations. The senior age group had accounted for 65 to 70% of hospitalizations last January. 

That rate has steadily declined amid a high rate of vaccinations and boosters.

The most recent surge caused by the Omicron variant has elevated the levels of hospitalizations among younger age groups, especially for those who are not vaccinated, Pigott explained.

On the positive side, hospital stays have likely generally been shorter than in the earlier days of the pandemic as the “medical profession has learned over the course of time what interventions work best,” Pigott added.

Monoclonal antibodies and antiviral medications such as remdesivir have reduced the likelihood of significant illness when people with positive tests receive these treatments soon after diagnosis, Pigott explained.

As for boosters, Pigott didn’t anticipate the broad need for additional shots in the immediate future.

“Recent studies are showing the booster shot to hold up quite well over time, so perhaps a booster will not be needed, at least not for a while,” he wrote.

Although doctors have identified a new subvariant of Omicron called BA.2 that the county is monitoring carefully, the World Health Organization has not classified it as a variant of concern.

Mental health

Even as the physical threat from COVID-19 may be receding, health care professionals suggested that the mental health toll from the pandemic may require continued monitoring and support.

Pigott cited two new CDC studies that indicated the children’s mental health crisis has gotten worse during the pandemic.

Adam Gonzalez, associate professor of Psychiatry & Behavioral Health at the Renaissance School of Medicine at Stony Brook University, explained that young adults, in particular, have been struggling with increased rates of anxiety and depression.

According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s Household Pulse Survey, which is a 20-minute online survey, 39.2% of people nationally aged 18 to 29 had indicators of anxiety or depression between Jan. 26 and Feb. 7 of this year. 

The group with the lowest percentage of such indicators was 80 years and above, with 9.3% of that age experiencing these indicators.

“The elevated rates of mental health problems highlight the need for mental health screening, referral and treatment — incorporating mental health as part of one’s overall health and well-being,” Gonzalez added.

Stony Brook Medicine is screening for depression throughout its practices to identify people who need mental health care support, Gonzalez wrote.

Cognitive behavioral therapy in particular is effective in helping improve mental health, with a group format proving just as effective as individual therapy, Gonzalez explained.

Gonzalez added that even a single session can help improve mental health, putting people back on a healthier path.

Gonzalez has been partnering with Jessica Schleider, assistant professor in Clinical Psychology at Stony Brook University, to teach people “how to break down problems into manageable steps. Our overall goal is to help get people the skills they need to effectively manage their mental health.”

County Executive Steve Bellone during a press conference in Hauppauge. Photo from Suffolk County

Following the recent CDC announcement, Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone announced on Tuesday, Nov. 9 that the Suffolk County Health Department will begin administering free COVID-19 vaccines to children ages 5 to 11. 

The vaccine clinics — which will be located at the H. Lee Dennison Building in Hauppauge — will be exclusively for children ages 5 to 17.

“I am beyond pleased that the CDC has recommended that children ages 5 to 11 years old be vaccinated against COVID-19,” Bellone said. “As a father, I am encouraging all parents who may have questions to talk with their pediatrician or a trusted healthcare provider about the importance of getting their children vaccinated. This vaccine saves lives and it could save the life of your child.”

On Nov. 2, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention gave the final clearance for the use of the Pfizer vaccine for children ages 5 to 11, following the emergency use authorization granted by the Food and Drug Administration last month. 

All children ages 5 to 11 are now eligible to receive a two-dose primary series of the pediatric formulation of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine, effective immediately. This is the first COVID-19 vaccine to be permitted for use in the age group, leading the way for more than 28 million children in the United States to be vaccinated as soon as possible.

To date, nearly 88 percent of county residents 18 and over have received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine and 74% of all county residents have received at least one dose.

Vaccines will be administered at the H. Lee Dennison Building located at 100 Veterans Memorial Highway in Hauppauge on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. and on Saturdays from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. 

 While appointments are not required, they are strongly encouraged. Walk-ins will be available on a first come, first served basis. For more information on the County’s vaccine efforts, or to schedule an appointment call 311 or visit suffolkcountyny.gov/vaccine. 

Steve Bellone. Stock photo by Rita J. Egan

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone (D) tested positive for COVID-19.

The County Executive, who is vaccinated and has been observing mask mandates, is unsure of how he contracted the virus.

Bellone has mild symptoms and is currently not receiving any medical treatment.

“I hope this serves as a reminder to all residents that while we are making incredible progress in the war against COVID-19, we are not done just yet,” Bellone said in a statement. “I encourage anyone who is eligible to receive their booster shot to do so.”

At this point, no other members of his office staff or his family has tested positive.

Bellone said he feels in “good health and spirits,” according to the statement. He will continue to carry out the duties of the County Executive.

Meanwhile, the percentage of positive tests on a seven-day average in Suffolk County fell below 3% on Oct. 20, dropping to 2.9%, according to the Suffolk County Department of Health.

Local health care providers have been encouraged by the overall decline in positive tests, which they attribute in part to ongoing vaccination efforts.

The Food and Drug Administration provided emergency use authorization for the Moderna booster for a specific groups of people who were fully vaccinated at least six months ago. Those groups include: people 65 years and older; people 18 through 64 who are considered at high risk; and people 18 through 64 with occupational exposure.

The FDA also approved the use of a single booster dose for people who received the Johnson & Johnson vaccine at least two months ago.

The FDA also allowed a mix and match approach to boosters, authorizing those who received one type of vaccination to choose a different booster. Local health care providers said studies have shown that people who received the J&J vaccine had a higher antibody response after receiving a Moderna booster.

“The available data suggest waning immunity in some populations who are fully vaccinated,” Acting FDA Commissioner Janet Woodccock said in a statement. “The availability of those authorized boosters is important for continued protection against COVID-19 disease.”

Peter Marks, director of the FDA’s Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research said the FDA would gather additional data as quickly as possible to assess the benefits and risks of the us of booster doses in additional populations and plans to update the healthcare community and the public in the coming weeks.

For more information on vaccines in the area, residents can go to the web site: suffolkcountyny.gov/vaccine.

The web site also includes answers to frequently asked questions, such as: what are the side effects after I get the COVID-19 vaccine, is it safe to get a COVID-19 vaccine if I have an underlying medical condition, and what should I do if I am exposed to COVID-19 after being vaccinated.

Early in the pandemic, Bellone remained in quarantine and managed his responsibilities from home after Deputy County Executive Peter Scully tested positive for the virus. Bellone didn’t test positive at that point, although he, like so many others in the early days of the disease, waited days for the results of his COVID test.

Stony Brook University President Maurie McInnis. Photo from Stony Brook University

Stony Brook University has been at the center of the COVID-19 pandemic, as hospital staff has treated and comforted residents stricken with the virus, and researchers have worked tirelessly on a range of projects — including manufacturing personal protective equipment. Amid a host of challenges, administrators at Stony Brook have had to do more with less under budgetary pressure. In this second part of a two-part seriesPresident Maurie McInnis offers her responses in an email exchange to several questions. The Q and A is edited for length. See last week’s paper for an interview with Interim Provost Fotis Sotiropoulos.

TBR News: What are the top three things that keep you up at night?

President Maurie McInnis: My first and foremost priority is to make sure we never compromise or become complacent when it comes to the health and safety of our campus community. Another priority is to develop strategies for best working through our budget challenges, which were exacerbated by COVID-19. And the third thing that keeps me up at night — and fills my waking hours — is making sure I am doing all I can to bring our vast resources together so we can continue to uphold the mission and values of Stony Brook University.

TBR: How do you feel the University has managed through the pandemic and what are some of the strategies you found particularly effective?

McInnis: Stony Brook’s successes in keeping our doors open for in-person learning during the fall semester are well-documented. And I continue to be impressed by, and grateful for, what our entire campus community did to make that happen… From testing students before they came back to campus, to everyone joining together as a community to follow our safety protocols. COVID-19 has revealed our unique strengths — our community engagement, seriousness about academics, personal sense of accountability and collective responsibility for one another.

TBR: How do you feel the University has managed through the economic crisis?

McInnis: Even as the COVID crisis highlighted our strengths, it’s also shone a light on some problematic patterns — particularly in the area of budgets — that in previous years were able to slip by, for Stony Brook and other universities. Our priorities right now are to learn from this moment and build for a more sustainable future.

TBR: Even in the midst of historic challenges, what things still excite and inspire you about Stony Brook University?

McInnis: The short answer is that the things that drew me to Stony Brook initially are the same characteristics that excite and inspire me today. I’m talking about its commitment to a diverse and talented student body; faculty’s dedication to delivering world-class research, scholarship and patient care; its impressive record of high-powered research and student success; its role as a major economic engine in the region; and, its emphasis on community, civility and cross-cultural exchange. Our unique dual role as a top-rated, research-oriented university and hospital stood up to the test of the historically challenging year we’ve had.

TBR: How has Stony Brook’s hybrid learning platform differentiated it from other university online platforms?

McInnis: What made Stony Brook’s learning model so successful is the fact that we worked with areas across campus, intensely and continuously, to make sure we had the right fit for our school, students, faculty members, staff, community, everyone. A hybrid model made the most sense, safety-wise and to ensure the best academic experience.

TBR: If you weren’t in triage mode, what would you be doing?

McInnis: When I came to Stony Brook, I identified three areas that we will continue to focus on during, and post-pandemic, and as we tackle ongoing budget challenges. First, we will continue to support our world-class faculty. We’ll do that by creating an environment in which students succeed, and by continuing to enable cutting-edge breakthroughs in research and medicine. Second, we will embrace our own diversity to strengthen the intellectual and social environment at Stony Brook by creating a ‘one campus’ culture through increased multidisciplinary efforts. And third, we will continue to drive social and economic change on Long Island, in New York State and across the country by staying community-focused and engaging in partnerships that benefit the region.

TBR: What do you plan and hope for a year from now? What’s the best and worst case scenarios?

McInnis: I hope that we can use our experience during this pandemic to spark positive change for future generations of Stony Brook students, faculty and community members, and build on our strengths. We are the number one institution in reducing social inequality. And we need to continue to embrace our incredible impact in driving intergenerational socioeconomic growth and social mobility. Connecting students with opportunities after they graduate — from research positions to internships to career advising — will be important in expanding that impact.

I also want to build on our strengths as both a state-of-the-art healthcare facility and cutting-edge research institution. I want to bring these two areas closer together, blending our expertise across disciplines, as we’re already starting to do. We also plan to apply lessons learned from our shift to remote and hybrid learning.

TBR: Are there COVID research initiatives that Stony Brook is involved with that you hope to continue?

McInnis: Fighting the COVID-19 pandemic has required researchers from many disciplines to come together, demonstrating the depth and breadth of our capabilities. Stony Brook is involved in more than 200 dedicated research projects across all disciplines. These projects span 45 academic departments and eight different colleges and schools within the University, and I’m impressed with the caliber and sense of urgency with which this work is being done.

TBR: If you were offered the opportunity to take the vaccine today, would you?

McInnis: Yes, I would take it in a heartbeat, right now.

Doug and Kelly Jansson have been chronicling Doug’s near-death experience with the virus, and want people to know it can happen to anyone. Photo from Kelly Jansson

Doug Jansson hasn’t been home in over six weeks, and his story is being heard all around the world. 

Right now, the lead pastor of Living Word Church in Hauppauge is in the Intensive Care Unit at Stony Brook University Hospital, said his wife Kelly Jansson. But the good news is he’s alive and heading toward recovery after a terrifying battle with COVID-19. 

On Nov. 30, the Jansson family tested positive for the virus. After 10 days, his wife said, Doug was getting worse so they called an ambulance.

“I got a phone call the day before Christmas Eve that he was declining,” Kelly said, her voice breaking. “They didn’t think he was going to make it.”

Doug, a healthy, athletic 42-year-old father of three from Smithtown, shouldn’t have gotten the virus, she said. 

“I think I remember him being sick only a handful of times in the 20 years we’ve been married,” she said. “When we got COVID, he was worried about me — nobody was worried about him getting hit this hard.”

Kelly said the next day he was put on a ventilator. “He was not doing well,” she said. “They weren’t sure if he was going to make it half the day.”

But she said the doctors and nurses at SBUH have been “amazing” toward her husband and family.

“I got a phone call saying they had a plan to save his life,” she said. 

Doug spent six days on life support and 13 on a ventilator. Eventually he was moved to the ICU where he sent his wife a text after more than two weeks.

“It was the best day of my life — it was incredible,” she said. 

Doug Jansson. Photo from Kelly Jansson

After being in the ICU for not even two days, he began complaining of severe pain. A CT scan revealed a pleural effusion (fluid in the chest), a secondary pneumonia, pleurisy and a small pneumothorax (air in the chest). His right lung collapsed.

Early on in the battle, Kelly — who isn’t on social media herself — decided to update Doug’s Facebook friends on his page, chronicling what was going on inside the hospital walls. His story has been shared hundreds of times thus far. 

“That’s Doug’s personality,” she said. “He’s so down-to-earth and real — I knew people would pray for him knowing what was happening.”

And the prayers are working. Throughout his illness, members from Doug’s church made it known they were praying for him.

Early on in the pandemic, Doug organized prayer parades around the hospitals. He held drive-in services to eliminate in-person gatherings. Now, he’s the one receiving prayers.

“I’ve gotten messages from people in other countries saying they’re standing and praying for him,” she said. “Now that Doug is fully awake and reading all these comments on Facebook with such encouraging words, he is so blown away that this was happening.”

Although Doug is still in the ICU, he’s stable. His oxygen levels are gradually going up, his voice is coming back and he can FaceTime with his family and friends from his hospital bed. He said that God was watching out for him these last six weeks, and that all the support from his neighbors and strangers has been emotional for him. 

“It’s been incredible,” he said. “All these random people praying for us, believing in us and praying to get me out of here … it literally brings tears to my eyes.”

Doug said he is so thankful for being able to tell his story, especially since he almost lost his life.

“There’s always hope in God,” he said. “During impossible situations, he comes through.”

His wife said it’s not over yet, and he has a long battle ahead of him. “But every day is a step forward, and any step forward is a significant step.”

While his titles are father, pastor, husband and son, Kelly said she has another name for him now.

“There is no doubt this is a miracle — God responded and did something,” she said. “I call him Miracle Man … God did this.”

Fairfield at St. James residents wanted to help the Smithtown community by gathering and donating tons of groceries to those suffering from food insecurity. Photo from Nicole Garguilo

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, everyday people felt that it was their civic duties to step up and make a difference. Some made masks, some drove around supplies, others gathered food for those who were hungry. 

Many of these people had jobs, families and their own struggles at home, but they knew they wanted to be a part of something bigger. They chose early on what side of history they were going to be on, the side that helped others and made a difference. 

“The sacrifice everyone made was apparent,” Carmela Newman with Operation Headband, said. “I grew tenfold from working with such amazing people.”

Operation Headband started out when Newman’s friends at local hospitals said their ears were red and raw from wearing uncomfortable masks all day. An avid sewer, she would volunteer and help sew costumes for local theater productions before the pandemic. 

“Me and my sewing buddy Bernice Daly put buttons on headbands and attached the elastic from the face masks, so it was off their ears,” she said. 

Then it took off. Her nurse friends began requesting them, first at Mather Hospital in Port Jefferson and then at Stony Brook University Hospital. Quickly, hospitals and facilities across Long Island were reaching out to Newman and her sewing friends in hopes they could get these comfortable accessories. The demand became so high that they ended up making a Facebook group and recruited other volunteers. 

The Ronkonkoma native said she couldn’t have done this alone. Newman credits Terry Ginzberg, Peter Graber, Teresa Mattison and Jeffrey Sanzel for being part of the team. 

“It was a fabrication of everyone coming together,” she said, the pun being intentional. “Everyone jumped on board to help. We became fast friends and family.”

Toward the end of the first wave of the pandemic, Newman said Operation Headband created 6,000 headbands and bandanas overall. Over 40 people volunteered to deliver the items while 15 sewers put the pieces together. In a little over four months, the group’s headbands helped health care professionals from the East End to Manhattan, in seven different states and made their way overseas to the U.K. “The group cared so much to be a part of this horrific thing that was out of our control,” she said. “There was no way we weren’t going to do this.”

Volunteers from LIOSMS. Photo from Kassay

Although it seems that everywhere one looks now there are masks, early on they were hard to find. That’s why Port Jefferson resident, one who would later become village trustee, Rebecca Kassay, started up a volunteer group that delivered over 40,000 PPE and comfort-care items to essential workers. 

Long Island Open Source Medical Supplies-Nassau and Suffolk County is celebrated for creating a Facebook group of hundreds of volunteers across the Island who gathered, purchased, created, donated and delivered PPE for frontline workers. 

“From mid-June through September, we continued to accept donations of PPE from makers, as well as connecting volunteers who want to continue making them to community groups that will get PPE to low-income families and students in school districts, individuals in shelters, Indigenous populations and other at-risk groups,” Kassay said.

More than 300 seamstresses, crafters and makers made and donated more than 15,000 face masks, 2,800 caps, 5,000 face shields, 12,000 ear savers and over 10,000 comfort-care items. Their fleet of 68 volunteer drivers worked hard to deliver the homemade PPE to over 130 facilities and collaborated with other volunteer groups by donating and exchanging fabric and materials.

It started when Kassay, with other local volunteers, began to see the demand for PPE and the need for help in hospitals. Her home, The Fox and Owl Inn in Port Jeff, became “the hub” that got things going. She and her fellow volunteers created a group that allowed people to communicate with one another with extraordinary teamwork. 

“After about a week it was growing so fast,” she said. “It ended up with 10 administrators managing a couple of hundred volunteers, selling masks, driving around materials, donating 3D-printed face shields, communicating with hospitals. The effort was to make everything much more efficient.”

But she said she truly couldn’t have done it alone. 

“Eleni Stamatinos was the mask coordinator and also helped train and coordinate with the other administrators,” Kassay said, adding that Stamatinos would work alongside her for 10-14 hours a day. “She has grown to be a dear friend of mine. While there has been immense tragedy during the pandemic, we have found beauty in the connections that might not have happened otherwise.”

And then there were volunteers she worked with, who spent hours helping out. 

“There are also countless Port Jefferson and surrounding area residents who contributed more time, heart and materials than I could’ve ever hoped for,” Kassay said. “We were driven by the satisfaction of bringing comfort to others. Other opportunities and priorities were pushed aside because of the urgency we all felt in the moment, and none of us regret it.”

While masks and other PPE were needed for frontline workers and the rest of the community, other volunteers dedicated their time at home to feed those who are struggling with food insecurity.

Fairfield at St. James residents donated tons of food. Photo from Nicole Garguilo

Nicole Garguilo, public information officer with the Town of Smithtown, said Fairfield at St. James, a senior living community, stepped up to help.

“They knew that they were high risk for the virus, but still wanted to help,” she said. “So, every month they’d get in a car caravan together, loaded up with nonperishables and meet us at the Gyrodyne parking lot.”

The town then delivered the food to Island Harvest of Hauppauge on their behalf. 

“It was really something to see our seniors put helping others in need before their own safety,” Garguilo said.

Carol Walsh, an 82-year-old resident at the community, was just one of the dozens of seniors who wanted to help.

“I know there are so many people who are hungry,” she said. “The feeling of isolation is so overwhelming, and people forget that others are out there who want to care and make people feel better. If we can make people smile and provide food it’s worth it.”

Walsh said their food caravans would often have between six and eight cars full of food. In September and October, they donated their collection to Island Harvest, but this month they brought more goods to the Smithtown Emergency Food Pantry. 

Denise Tortore & Rosane Ackley at Mather Hospital with Meals on Wheels. Photo from Meals on Wheels

And while these seniors collected nonperishables, the local chapter of Meals on Wheels brought hot and cold meals to those who were unable to leave their homes. 

Barbara Siegel said the Three Village Meals on Wheels group consists of about 150 volunteers and has been delivering food to those in need five days a week for 38 years.

Partnering with the kitchens at Port Jefferson’s Mather and St. Charles hospitals and Setauket Village Diner, a cold lunch and a hot dinner are delivered to people who are homebound. Siegel said that other chapters of Meals on Wheels had to temporarily shut down during the pandemic but not the Stony Brook operation, which covers from St. James, across the North Shore into Mount Sinai, down into Coram and toward Lake Grove. 

“We got more calls during pandemic,” Siegel said. 

And although Siegel thanks and appreciates all the volunteers who gave up their free time to drive around Suffolk County delivering these dishes, she said it wouldn’t have been possible without the office staff coordinating it all: Ruth Spear, Ronnie Kreitzer and Linda Bernstein.

Siegel said Spear is a caring individual, always cheerful when someone calls the office, willing to help them with whatever inquiry they have. Bernstein takes care of the financial side of things, while Kreitzer coordinates the driver routes. 

“The three ladies that are in the office are just invaluable — they never stop,” Siegel said. “They go to sleep at night and their heads are still going thinking about tomorrow. They do it from their heart and soul.”

But Spear was modest, saying it was a collaborative team effort.

“It’s just our job,” she said.

Kathleen Weinberger, Aramark Nutrition Services food service director with Kings Park school district, helped feed hundreds of students throughout the pandemic.

Aramark Nutrition Services delivering food. Photo from Weinberger

Weinberger said that at the start of the pandemic, she reacted and considered what the safest way to help families would be during the crisis. Aramark employees worked alongside the school district to incorporate a breakfast and lunch grab-and-go window at the high school. They also incorporated a Meals on Wheels bus delivery system with district bus drivers to those families who had no means of transportation.

From March 16 until June 30, they distributed 28,406 meals, seven days a week.

“There were many special moments from seeing their smiles on their faces and the wonderful handwritten ‘thank you’ notes and pictures drawn by the kids that really warmed my heart,” Weinberger said. 

The Kings Park resident said it’s important to consider others, not just during a crisis but every day. 

“People should gather together in good times, as well as difficult times, as it makes stronger ties within the community,” she said. “I’m willing to do whatever I can to lend a helping hand.”