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St. Charles Hospital

Dr. Sharon Nachman, chief of Division of Pediatric Infectious Diseases at the Renaissance School of Medicine at Stony Brook University. Photo from Stony Brook Medicine

Dr. Sunil Dhuper’s actions speak as loudly as his words.

The chief medical officer at Port Jefferson’s St. Charles Hospital is planning to get a booster for the COVID-19 vaccine this Thursday, after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention authorized Friday, Sept. 24, the additional shot for a range of adults, including those in jobs that put them at an increased risk of exposure and transmission, such as frontline health care workers.

Earlier, the U.S. Food & Drug Administration announced Sept. 22 that “a single booster dose” was allowed “for certain populations” under the emergency use authorization, although the EUA “applies only to the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine.” 

Dhuper received his first vaccination in January and would like to raise his immunity.

“I am very eager to get the booster dose,” he said in an interview. “I reviewed scientific data from all over the world — from the United States, Israel, the United Kingdom — and I had reflected that, after six months after the second dose, it’s time to get a third dose.”

While St. Charles and other hospitals haven’t required a booster, Dhuper believes that state and national guidance will likely recommend it before too long.

“Over time, I do anticipate people may begin to get severe infections or get hospitalized” if they haven’t enhanced their immunity with a booster, he said. “It would be prudent to get the booster dose in the arms of those who are fully vaccinated.”

Stony Brook University Hospital is providing boosters to employees and to eligible members of the public.

Meanwhile, Northwell Health and Huntington Hospital are deliberating how to proceed and will announce a decision soon, according to Dr. Adrian Popp, chair of infection control at Huntington Hospital.

While boosters are available for education staff, agriculture and food workers, manufacturing workers, corrections workers, U.S. Postal Service employees, grocery store workers, public transit employees and a host of others, the overall infection rate in Suffolk County has stabilized over the past few weeks.

Decline in infections

As of Sept. 25, the seven-day average rate of positive tests in the county fell below 4% for the first time since Aug. 15, dropping to 3.9%, according to data from the New York State Department of Health.

“We think the numbers might have plateaued,” Dhuper said. That decline coincides with the increasing number of people who are vaccinated. In Suffolk as at Sept. 29, 1,043,478 people (70.7%) have received at least one dose and 950,058 (64.3%) are fully vaccinated, according to Covid Act Now. Anybody who is at least 12 years old is eligible to be vaccinated.

The number of COVID Patients from Huntington Hospital has fallen in the last month, dropping to 20 from about 30, according to Popp. Five patients are in the intensive care unit at the hospital with COVID.

Dr. Sharon Nachman, chief of pediatric infectious diseases at Stony Brook Children’s Hospital, described the downward trend in the seven-day average as “great news,” but added that such an infection rate is “not close to where we need to be to say we have turned a corner.”

The current infected population includes children, as “more kids are getting infected,” she said, with children currently representing 25.7 percent of all new COVID cases nationwide.

With the FDA and CDC considering approving the emergency use authorization that provides one-third of the dosage of the adult shot for children ages 5 to 11, Nachman urged residents to vaccinate their children whenever the shot is available to them.

“There is no advantage to picking the right age or dose for a child,” she explained in an email. “If they are 12 now, get that dose. If they are 11 and 8 months [and the CDC approves the vaccine for younger children], don’t wait until they are 12 to get a different dose. Get the dose now that is available for that age.”

When younger children are eligible for the lower amount of the vaccine, Dhuper also urged them to get that lower dose, which he feels “offers a good level of protection for the foreseeable future.”

Nachman said she sees the issue of weight or age bands regularly in pediatrics.

“The take-home message is to not play any games and treat the child at the age or weight that they are now and not wait for them to be older or heavier,” she suggested.

As for the next month, Dhuper cautioned that the county may show another peak, particularly with the increase of indoor activities where the spread of the more transmissible Delta variant is more likely. At this point, concerns about the Mu variant, which originated in South America and was much more prevalent in the United States and in Suffolk County in June, has decreased.

“We were seeing 5% of the cases in New York state were Mu variants and the remaining were Delta,” Dhuper said.

Popp estimated that the Mu variant constitutes between 0.1% and 0.3% of cases.

The World Health Organization has urged wealthier nations like the United States not to administer boosters to their populations widely before the rest of the world has an opportunity to vaccinate their residents.

Dhuper said the United States has contributed 500 million doses to the rest of the world this year and plans to donate about 1.1 billion doses to the rest of the world in 2022.

“I hope that other upper and middle income nations can do the same, so we can get [the shots] in the arms of those who need them,” he said.

Popp urged people to recognize that COVID is a global disease.

“We in the U.S. will not be safe until the epidemic is cleared in other parts of the world as well,” he explained in an email. “I believe it is in our national interest to help other countries fight the COVID epidemic.”

 

Popp said the United States has plenty of vaccine, with enough for boosters and to vaccinate those who haven’t gotten a shot.

Photo by Julianne Mosher

Congressman Lee Zeldin (R-NY1) rallied with health care workers to boycott Gov. Kathy Hochul’s (D) vaccination deadline, Sept. 27.

Zeldin, who is campaigning for governor, joined other elected officials outside the state building in Hauppauge Monday just hours before health care workers were required to get the COVID-19 vaccine by midnight or risk losing their jobs.

On Monday night, Hochul signed an executive order to significantly expand the eligible workforce and allow additional health care workers to administer COVID-19 testing and vaccinations. 

According to the mandate, if health care workers do not receive at least one dose of one of the COVID-19 vaccines by the end of day Monday — without a medical exemption or having previously filed for a religious exemption — they will forfeit their jobs. 

The congressman has been vocal over the mandates, locally and nationally. 

“Our health care workers were nothing short of heroic the past 18 months,” Zeldin said. “We shouldn’t be firing these essential workers. We should be thanking them for all they’ve done for our communities.”

Zeldin was calling on Hochul to work with medical facilities and the state’s health care workers to “implement a more reasonable policy that does not violate personal freedoms, fire health care workers who helped us through the pandemic’s worst days, and cause chaos and staffing shortages at hospitals and nursing homes.”

Hochul stated this week that to fill the vacancies in hospitals, she plans to bring in the National Guard and other out-of-state health care workers to replace those who refuse to get vaccinated.

“You’re either vaccinated and can keep your job, or you’re out on the street,” said Zeldin, who is vaccinated.

State Sen. Mario Mattera (R-St. James) said he was angered when health care employees were given limited ability to negotiate the vaccine mandate through their unions.

“This isn’t a state of emergency, like a hurricane,” he said. “This is a state of emergency that people get fired, and not going to have unemployment insurance. I am a union leader. This is a disgrace to all Americans.”

According to the state Department of Labor, unvaccinated workers who are terminated from their jobs will not be eligible for unemployment insurance benefits. A new Republican-led bill introduced in Albany would restore those jobless benefits.

On Tuesday, the state released data noting the percentage of hospital staff receiving at least one dose was 92% (as of Monday evening) based on preliminary self-reported data. The percentage of fully vaccinated was 85% as of Monday evening, up from 84% on Sept. 22 and 77% on Aug. 24.

 “This new information shows that holding firm on the vaccine mandate for health care workers is simply the right thing to do to protect our vulnerable family members and loved ones from COVID-19,” Hochul said in a statement. “I am pleased to see that health care workers are getting vaccinated to keep New Yorkers safe, and I am continuing to monitor developments and ready to take action to alleviate potential staffing shortage situations in our health care systems.”

Long Island’s three health care providers have already implemented the mandate and are taking action. 

Northwell Health, the state’s largest private employer and health care provider — and which includes Port Jefferson’s Mather Hospital and Huntington Hospital — previously notified all unvaccinated team members that they are no longer in compliance with New York State’s mandate to vaccinate all health care workers by the Sept. 27 deadline.

“Northwell regrets losing any employee under such circumstances, but as health care professionals and members of the largest health care provider in the state, we understand our unique responsibility to protect the health of our patients and each other,” Northwell said in a statement. “We owe it to our staff, our patients and the communities we serve to be 100% vaccinated against COVID-19.”

Catholic Health Executive Vice President and Chief Medical Officer Jason Golbin said in a statement that the provider is “incredibly proud of our staff’s dedication to protecting the health and safety of Long Islanders during the COVID-19 pandemic and are grateful for their heroic efforts over the last 18 months.”

He added, “In keeping with our commitment to ensuring the health and safety of our patients, visitors, medical staff and employees, we are complying with the New York State vaccine mandate for all health care workers.”

Golbin said that as of Tuesday, Sept. 28, the vast majority of staff is fully vaccinated with only a few hundred people furloughed from across six hospitals, three nursing facilities, home health care, hospice and other physician practices. 

Stony Brook University officials added Stony Brook medicine has been preparing for New York State’s mandate all healthcare workers get at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine by the deadline. 

As of 8 p.m. on Sept. 28, 94.07% of Stony Brook University Hospital employees have been vaccinated, and this number continues to increase, 134 Stony Brook University Hospital employees are being placed on suspension without pay and will be scheduled to meet with Labor Relations representatives to discuss their circumstances. While awaiting this meeting, they can use vacation or holiday time off. If they continue to elect not to receive the vaccine, they will be terminated in accordance with the NYS DOH order. 

Less than 1% of the hospital’s total employee population are in a probationary employment period and while they are currently suspended without pay, they are still eligible to be vaccinated before their terminations are processed and could still return to work. 

Officials said these numbers are fluid and are expecting further declines.

From left to right: Middle Island Fire Chief Bill Nevin, Chuck Prentis, Dr. Jeffrey Wheeler, Nursing Assistant Drew Saidler. Photo from Catholic Health

Chuck Prentis, 59 of Centerport, was at the right place at the right time this past May, when he was bicycle riding up a very steep hill in Port Jefferson and suddenly went into cardiac arrest in front of St. Charles Hospital on Belle Terre Road.

All of the stars aligned that day for Prentis. St. Charles nursing assistant Drew Saidler was in the emergency room and heard the outside cries for help. He immediately sprang into action and performed life-saving CPR on the lawn where the rider had fallen from his bicycle. 

A St. Charles security officer alerted the emergency room staff of the incident and the medical team immediately ran out to assist Saidler. At the same time, Middle Island Fire Chief Bill Nevin happened to be driving by the scene at that very moment, jumped out of his car with an automated external defibrillator. 

Prentis was placed on a stretcher, with nurse Kirsten Connolly on top, performing life-saving compressions as Chuck was being rushed into the emergency room.

As it turns out, Chuck suffered from a widow maker which is the most severe kind of heart attack, where there is almost 100% total blockage in a critical blood vessel called the left anterior descending artery. 

Prentis has a family history of heart disease. His father passed away at a young age of a heart attack, his older brother had open heart surgery and also survived a widow maker and his older sister required a stenting procedure due to blockages. 

Knowing that he had a family history, he lived a healthy lifestyle and exercised frequently on the Peloton bike – about 130 miles a week. He never had any symptoms prior to that day in May when he went into sudden cardiac arrest. 

Once stabilized at St. Charles, Chuck also required another procedure to implant an Impella device typically used in patients with severe heart failure, to help flow of blood to the heart.

Prentis is not quite back on the Peloton, but for now enjoys playing golf and spending quality time with his wife and three sons. He and his family are extremely appreciative of the emergency room staff who sprang into action that day. Each one was instrumental in saving his life. One might say, it is a miracle that Prentis was at the right place at the right time and received the lifesaving care he desperately needed.

Photo from SBUH

In response to an easing of state regulations and their approach to patient care, area hospitals are relaxing restrictions about patient visitors.

Cheryl Miranda, director of Patient Experience at Huntington Hospital, has been planning the new visitation policy since the beginning of the month. Photo from Huntington Hospital

Starting this past Monday, Huntington Hospital will allow patients who do not have COVID-19 to have one visitor per day, between 2 p.m. and 6 p.m. St. Charles and St. Catherine of Siena hospitals also allow one COVID-19 negative visitor per day during those same hours.

Huntington Hospital is responding to the medical, emotional and personal need its patients have for the support of family and friends during whatever health challenges they face.

“There is nothing like having your loved one at your bedside, holding your hand,” said Cheryl Miranda, director of Patient Experience at Huntington Hospital, which is a part of Northwell Health.

Family also provides helpful information, helping medical professionals know whether a patient’s behavior is different from normal

“As a nurse, I’ve always felt that family is part of the caregiving circle,” Miranda said. “The family knows their loved one better than anyone. They will help us provide better care.”

St. Charles Hospital and St. Catherine of Siena started allowing one hospital visitor per COVID-negative patient per day starting about four weeks ago.

Stony Brook is making several changes to its visitation policy.

As of April 1, the hospital is allowing two visitors for patients in labor and delivery, for pediatric patients and for patients in end-of-life situations. This will increase from one to two.

Patients receiving same day surgical procedures will also be allowed a patient visitor until a procedure begins. The visitor is required to wait outside during the procedure and then can return during the patient’s release from the hospital.

Inpatient child psychiatry will also allow a visitor, as will cancer center and outpatient offices.

Approved visitors to Stony Brook must wear a mask that covers their nose and mouth the entire time, will have symptom checks, including thermal scanning, will not be allowed outside the patient’s room, must maintain six feet of distance and must wash their hands on entering and leaving the room.

Hospitals had generally restricted most or all patient visitors over various periods in the last year amid the pandemic to limit the spread of COVID-19. Nurses throughout Long Island and the world have used tablets, phones and other technology to help their patients connect with family members, enabling them to see spouses, siblings, children, grandchildren and friends from hospital beds that often had them feeling isolated during their health battles.

Allowing visitors, who are still required to wear masks, will help hospitalized patients feel more normal and receive the kind of support that can brighten their day while shortening their hospital visit.

A hospital employee will screen patients on their way into the hospital, asking them questions about any possible symptoms and taking their temperature.

Visitors who are COVID-19 positive can’t enter. Additionally, visitors who come in from out of the state or whom they believe necessitates a screening will have a rapid swab.

“We are not asking everyone to be tested,” Miranda said.

The hospital is spreading the word about its new patient visitor policy by changing its on-hold messages, is sharing information on TV sets and is telling families directly during virtual visits that one person at a time can come to the hospital.

Patients can determine who visits, which includes family members and friends.

“There is nothing like having your loved one at your bedside, holding your hand.”

Cheryl Miranda

Miranda said the medical staff is well-prepared for an increase in visitors through the hospital.

“I don’t have to tell anybody in this building to follow precautions,” Miranda said. “We’ve all been through this for 13 months now and there isn’t anyone” who needs reminding about personal protective equipment, hand washing or social distancing.

Initially, Huntington Hospital workers will escort visitors to patient rooms, reminding them about safety policies.

During visits, patients and visitors are expected to wear masks. If a family member comes during mealtime or brings food, the patient can eat, but should do so at a safe distance.

Miranda, who has been at Huntington Hospital for 20 years, realizes the suffering patients and their families have endured during the pandemic.

“To tell someone they can’t be here is an awful, awful thing,” Miranda said. “My heart goes out to the families that haven’t been allowed to be here” and to the patients who “haven’t been able to have their loved ones at their side.”

Miranda has been planning this new visitation policy since the beginning of the month.

The hospital has learned numerous lessons about health care, including by providing virtual support for patients.

In addition to bereavement support groups, which have been particularly busy as families mark the one-year anniversary of the loss of a loved one, the hospital is adding a long-haul support group.

Starting on Thursday, April 8 at 2 p.m., Huntington Hospital will offer support to people who have a lingering cough, ongoing debilitating fatigue, body aches, joint pain, shortness of breath, loss of taste and smell, difficulty sleeping, headaches and brain fog.

People interested in joining that group can email Kacey Farber at [email protected]

Dr. Jean Cacciabaudo, associate medical director at Huntington Hospital and a cardiologist, will sit on the long haulers support meeting. Cacciabaudo, who had COVID-19 and has some long haulers symptoms, will attend not just for herself, but to provide the physician’s perspective.

Miranda said the bereavement support groups have helped family members amid a loss.

“It’s the beauty of humanity, when we reach out and help each other,” Miranda said. “There’s no magic solution for grief and loss. For some people, it’s just about remembering all the wonderful things they had when they had that person and sharing that with other people. It’s about not being isolated. That’s a big key.”

Doug Jansson spent 63 days away from his family, battling and almost dying from COVID-19. Photo by Julianne Mosher

Doug Jansson finally got to spend Christmas with his family — nearly two months after the holiday.

Friends and family gathered outside St. Charles Hospital to cheer Doug on. Photo by Julianne Mosher

On Dec. 12,  the 42-year-old pastor was brought into Stony Brook University Hospital after he and the rest of his family contracted COVID-19 in late November. He was intubated in the Intensive Care Unit on Christmas Eve, and placed on life support where it was thought he wasn’t going to make it.

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

But now, the lead pastor of Living World Church in Hauppauge is back home in Smithtown after 63 days.

On Feb. 12, the father of three was wheeled out of St. Charles Hospital in Port Jefferson, where he was undergoing rehabilitation for nine days, since being discharged from Stony Brook on Feb. 3. Jansson said he was able to get up and walk out because of prayer. 

Early on in the pandemic, Jansson organized prayer parades with his church, often visiting local hospitals to support essential workers and victims of the virus. 

Doug embraces his family after two long months apart. Photo by Julianne Mosher

But then he became ill, himself. 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.

That’s when his wife knew she had to share his story. Kelly logged into his Facebook account and began updating his friends, family and followers of his progress. Some days were better than others, but one thing she kept asking of everyone was to keep praying. 

Kelly said she began receiving messages from people all over the world, telling her they were keeping Doug in their thoughts and prayers. Now he’s finally home.

Doug embraced by his wife, Kelly, while hospital workers cheer on. Photo by Julianne Mosher

Feb. 12 was always a special day for the couple, Kelly said outside St. Charles Hospital the day of his release. Twenty-one years ago, on the same date, he proposed to her. 

And to celebrate his release, nearly 100 people gathered outside with balloons, signs and streamers to cheer the pastor on as he got in his car, ready to go home.  

“I’m thankful that we’re here and so grateful,” Doug said before he addressed the crowd outside. “I know that God has set it up to be just a miracle and something that we can’t express that we know we don’t deserve. But he’s giving, so we’re really thankful.”

When asked how this whole experience made him feel, his voice broke. 

“I would say two words keep coming to mind when people ask me that,” he said. “One is painful. It’s been very difficult, fighting through this and being away from my family. But the other word is, in a weird way beautiful, because I’ve gotten to see doctors and nurses and health care people in a different light and really get to know them.”

He said the essential workers have been there for him and his family. 

“I also feel like God’s put me through this to try to be there for them, to encourage him, pray for and bless them,” he added. “I know that, for whatever reason, this story has impacted people and, you know, that makes going through it worth it because I know people are being drawn to Jesus.”

The family pet, Chewy, was happy to see his dad again. Photo from Kelly Jansson

Nearly a week home, one of his first requests, he said, was to get a slice of pizza from Ciro’s in Smithtown. And on his way home, the pizzeria donated two large pies to the family to celebrate his homecoming. 

The family was finally able to celebrate Christmas, and their dog, Chewy, was so happy to see his dad again.

“He’s doing really well,” Kelly said on Feb. 15 in a phone interview. “He’s working so hard on getting stronger. There’s still a way to go, but we will help him get there.”

And Doug said his couldn’t have done it without the support from his family, church, faith and the prayers from strangers. 

“I am so grateful to God to be home with my family after all this time,” he said. “We are enjoying every second of it.”

St. Catherine Chief Nursing Officer Mary Jane Finnegan gives a flu shot during a free mobile clinic at the end of September. Photo from St. Catherine hospital

They lost patients, sleep and time with their families and yet, through some of the most difficult conditions in over a century, they persevered, brought together by the shared goal of saving lives threatened by the pandemic.

The Times Beacon Record Newspapers is pleased to honor the health care workers who put themselves in harm’s way to offer comfort, cures and solutions for COVID-19.

State Sen. Jim Gaughran (D-Northport) described health care workers as “heroes beyond belief.” He added, “There are folks who have gotten sick and died, simply because they were just doing their jobs.”

Unusual Requests

Indeed, in some cases, these health care workers took on tasks that aren’t typically a part of their job description or training.

Tricia Coffey on the phone at Huntington Hospital. Photo from Coffey

Take Kristen Thomas, a registered nurse at Mather Hospital in Port Jefferson. A priest came up to her in the halls of the hospital to ask for an unusual favor. A person had died and the family, who couldn’t be by his side, asked for last rites. The priest knew he couldn’t enter the room.

He asked, “Would you mind taking holy water and anointing the patient?”

She approached the patient, made the sign of the cross and prayed, as the priest stood outside the door.

“A moment like that, you never really plan to do that,” Thomas said. “We tried to give the family a little bit of closure. They didn’t get to attend the normal [rituals].”

For the community and health care workers, normal took on new meaning, especially in the first few months of the pandemic, when Suffolk County became an epicenter of the virus.

With family unable to sit by the bedside, nurses often stepped up, holding up iPad and phones so the family could spend time together virtually.

Marilin Dilone, Emergency Department nurse at Stony Brook University Hospital, called the young family of one of her patients.

Marilin Dilone, emergency department nurse at SBUH decked in full PPE gear. Photo from SBUH

His wife “put the baby on the phone — the baby looked like he was maybe 10 months old. The baby was making noises. I swear [the patient] opened his eyes. The wife is crying. Such a moment, we take for granted. He could hear her say, ‘I love you.’ To be able to provide that was very humbling for me.”

Like Dilone and so many other nurses, Robert Collins, a nurse at Mather Hospital ,shared how he held an iPad up to patients whose conditions were deteriorating so they could say goodbye to their families.

He had to stay in the room because some of the patients couldn’t hold the iPad.

“You do that once or twice, it kind of sticks with you,” Collins said.

Deep Connections

The connections the medical staff made to the families of patients extended well beyond the typical interactions.

“We had patients for an extended period of time,” said Patricia Coffey, nurse manager of the Critical Care Unit at Huntington Hospital.

Coffey, who spent 11 weeks actively caring for patients as her managerial duties “went to the wayside,” said the staff talked to families for extended periods of time. She spoke with some families daily, spending as much as two-and-a-half hours each day on the phone.

The nurses felt like members of the family because the normal support system couldn’t provide bedside support.

“You were channeling the family to the patient,” Coffey said. The nurses were “rooting so hard” for the patients.

When one of those patients who was in the hospital died after a long battle, she said it was “unbelievably heartbreaking — you felt like one of your own family members had died.”

She still keeps in touch with family members.

Mather Nurse Robert Collins. Photo from Mather

Coffey said one of her neighbors was admitted to the hospital with COVID and was on her floor. Coffey’s children and her neighbor’s children grew up together and their daughters were friends.

She not only spoke with his wife every day during her 60-hour weeks, but she also called her coworkers over the weekend to ask how he was doing.

The conversations with the neighbor’s wife were “a little hard. I wanted to be honest with her. He was very critical. At the same time, I was trying to be hopeful. It was a hard balance.”

Coffey said he was “one of the lucky ones who survived.”

Dilone of SBUH described how the work was more physically demanding.

She would “try not to ask for people” as she didn’t want to expose others if it wasn’t necessary. “You are taking care of patients more by yourself, turning them and doing chest PT [physiotherapy] — it was physically more demanding,” Dilone said.

Dark Moments

Watching patients who died took its toll, even on people who have been in the medical profession for decades.

MaryJane Finnegan, chief nursing officer at St. Catherine of Siena Medical Center in Smithtown, described the unusually high number of people dying from the virus. The hospital was running out of space for the dead. The morgue was filled and an additional refrigeration truck outside also filled quickly.

Mather Nurse Kristen Thomas. Photo from Mather

“One day, eight people died — usually in a week, you can have eight people die, but not eight in a day,” Finnegan said.

Nikki Fiore-Lopez, chief nursing officer at St. Charles Hospital in Port Jefferson said a nurse was present for the death of her mentor. Watching her die was “one of the darkest moments” for the nurse, Fiore-Lopez said.

Many medical professionals encouraged their patients to fight through the worst of the virus.

Stony Brook’s Dilone stayed with a patient whose blood oxygen level kept dropping. She wouldn’t let him fall asleep because she was worried he’d get intubated. She reminded him of his family and that he needed to help himself.

“I felt like Nurse Ratched,” Dilone said, referring to the dreaded nurse from the movie “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.”

Dilone spent hours with this patient. Later, a doctor told her keeping the man awake prevented him from getting intubated.

Unexpected Challenges

With a virus no one had battled before, health care workers had to be flexible, learning about everything from new protocols for admitting patients to the latest and best treatments.

Chief Nursing Officer at St. Charles hospital Nikki Fiore-Lopez delivers flowers to patients at Christmas with Foundation Board Chair member Doug Casimir in 2019. Photo from St. Charles

The staff had to confront the “speed with which everything changed,” said Dr. Eric Morley, associate professor and clinical director in the Department of Emergency Medicine at Stony Brook University’s Renaissance School of Medicine. “Every day, there were new protocols, new ways to deal with things.”

Hospitals had to create a forward triage system to deal with the flood of COVID patients amid all the other potential emergencies hospitals routinely have.

These efforts required hundreds of employees to “get on the same people to sort people out,” Morley said. Training staff to manage the flow of patients required constant communication.

Even some of the smaller elements of managing the crisis took Morley’s time, such as getting new traffic signs to direct people to an alternate site.

Hospital managers were continually confronted with numerous unexpected challenges.

Ken Roberts, president of Mather Hospital, said the hospital had to ensure the PPE was hospital grade and not counterfeit.

“There were a lot of suspicious and unscrupulous suppliers when supply and demand was unbalanced, and everyone was in crisis,” he explained in an email.

Health care workers tapped into their personal skills to connect with patients.

Angel Figueroa, a registered respiratory therapist at SBUH who grew up in New York City and learned Spanish thanks to his Puerto Rican heritage, walked into some rooms and spoke Spanish to patients.

When he greeted patients in Spanish, “I would see their eyes open up [and think], ‘Somebody understands me.’”

They would ask him numerous questions, particularly because the medical information came at them so quickly. 

Mather’s Collins described how the routine changed so dramatically the moment he arrived at work.

Mather President Ken Roberts holds a sign thanking health care workers. Photo from Mather

“Rapid response bells were going off as soon as you walked in,” he said. “You didn’t take your coat off” before patients needed attention. “People were not doing well. That was happening more frequently than before. That was an adjustment.”

On the other side of the struggle, health care workers felt a tremendous sense of relief when patients continued their recoveries at home.

“When people were discharged, the staff was thrilled,” St. Catherine’s Finnegan said. “We’d play the [Beatles] song, ‘Here Comes the Sun.’ A lot of hospitals did that. People would gather as many as possible to wish the person well as they were wheeled out.”

Teamwork

Through the difficulties, though, Morley appreciated the support from the community and the families, along with the teamwork and camaraderie from so many departments and staff that all pulled together.

Roberts expressed similar sentiments.

“I was extremely pleased at the teamwork displayed by all hospital staff during the height of the pandemic,” he said.

The Mather president was also grateful for the letters, cards, donated meals, handmade masks and donated PPE.

“The local communities we serve gave us and continue to give us tremendous support and encouragement,” Roberts said. “That has meant so much to the staff to know that the community was supporting them and recognizing their efforts.”

Stony Brook Respiratory Therapist Angel Figueroa wearing mask and shield. Photo from SBUH

Coffey, from Huntington Hospital, was impressed with how, even amid such extraordinary and challenging times, numerous groups collaborated.

“In many ways there were positive things — the community, the team, everyone working together,” she said. “Parts of it were so uplifting. As hard and as difficult and sad and heart wrenching [as it was], so many other parts, you just saw such humanity. It was amazing.” 

Lasting Thoughts

Finnegan said the staff was incredibly appreciative of all the food local restaurants donated.

In fact, some of them joke that they gained the “COVID-19,” referring to the weight they put on while they were working numerous shifts and benefiting from all the donated food.

Morley “rediscovered” Twinkies during COVID in the break room. He has since been able to lose the weight the snack cakes added.

While gyms were closed, Collins relieved stress by buying a 400-pound tractor-trailer tire that he flipped up and down along his driveway. He also took a sledgehammer and “beat on it.”

The exertion would make him tired enough that the stress would dissipate for the day.

Dr. Eric Morley from SBU participates in COVID testing. Photo from SBU

Ultimately, what made an ever-expanding job — that affected so many aspects of health care workers’ personal and professional lives — manageable was the shared sense of purpose and the inspiration people drew from each other.

“The fact that the staff was out there doing it” helped give her energy, St. Charles’ Fiore-Lopez said. “We had patients to care for, we had shifts. We had days and weeks and months to get through. They put one foot in front of the other and I needed to do the same.”

Morley appreciated the way the Stony Brook staff pulled together during an intense and challenging time.

“Although it was grueling, it was a special thing to go through with that group of people,” he said.

At the St. Charles Give Veterans a Smile Day, veteran Kevin Magrane is treated by Michelle Wah, DDS; and Renee Calasciabetta, dental assistant.

Catholic Health Service’s (CHS) St. Charles Hospital Stephen B. Gold Dental Clinic in Port Jefferson recently hosted its 5th annual Give Veterans a Smile Day. The event provides men and women who have served our country in the armed forces with quality dental care free of charge.

This year’s event was dedicated to Mark Cherches, DDS, who passed away on September 18th. A military veteran, Dr. Cherches served as director of the St. Charles Dental Residency Program for 40 years and was instrumental in founding Give Veterans a Smile Day.

“It is humbling and very uplifting to help these men and women who have done so much to protect our freedom,” said St. Charles Department of Dentistry Director Keri Logan, DMD. “Many of our military veterans no longer have dental insurance. A veteran must be 100% service-disabled to qualify for dental care from the Veterans Administration.”

This year’s November 4th event provided service members numerous much-needed dental procedures, including exams, oral cancer screenings, cleanings, extractions and fillings. Also, free flu shots were provided.

Beginning in 2021, the Give Veterans a Smile Day will be held twice a year thanks to a grant from the Mother Cabrini Health Foundation.

For information about the Stephen B. Gold Dental Clinic, please call (631) 474-6332.

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Radio Central Amateur Radio Club vice-president Richie Fisher and St. Charles Hospital Director of Public and Community Relations Marilyn Fabbricante look on as radio club president Neil Heft presents a $1,000 donation to Lisa Mulvey, Executive Director of the St. Charles Hospital Foundation. (photo credit: Frank Mazovec)

In a show of appreciation for its service to the community during the COVID19 pandemic, the Radio Central Amateur Radio Club (RCARC) recently presented a $1,000 donation to St. Charles Hospital in Port Jefferson.

“We are grateful for the tireless hours put in by not only St. Charles doctors and nurses, but also by all of the medical support staff, facility personnel, security officers and the multitude of people needed to keep the hospital running smoothly,” said Radio Central’s president, Neil Heft. He explained that the group “wanted to do something more than just putting up a thank you sign, so we took up a collection from our forty members who live in the community.”

In a brief ceremony on October 16th, Heft accompanied by RCARC vice-president Richie Fisher and board member Frank Mazovec presented the donation to Lisa Mulvey, Executive Director of the St. Charles Hospital Foundation, and Marilyn Fabbricante, St. Charles Hospital’s Director of Public and Community Relations.

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The Radio Central Amateur Radio Club (RCARC) was formed in 1977 by a group of Amateur Radio operators to commemorate the enormous contributions to communications made by RCA’s Radio Central transmitting facility established in Rocky Point, NY. In 1921 as the world’s largest, most powerful transmitting facility, sending messages to land stations and ships at sea around the globe. More information on RCARC can be found at: www.rcarc.org. Information about Amateur Radio can be found at: www.arrl.org

From left, Private First Class Alex Vroman of the New York Army National Guard and Josh Miller, MD, MPH, Assistant Dean for Clinical Integration and Medical Director of Diabetes Care for Stony Brook Medicine, at the coronavirus testing site on Stony Brook University’s campus, where more 48,000 people were tested from March through July. Photo from SBU

The Thanksgiving COVID-19 numbers are here and they are skyrocketing.

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone (D) was joined by health and emergency response officials in a media call Dec. 3 to brief the public on the increase in positive coronavirus tests since the holiday last week.

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone. Photo by Julianne Mosher

“We are expecting to see more than 1,100 positive cases in Suffolk County, with a positivity rate of about 6%,” he said. “We have not seen a number of 1,000 cases a day since last April.”

To put it in perspective, Bellone said, Suffolk County was averaging below 200 new cases per day last month. The number has now jumped to nearly 500 positive cases on average per day.

The spike in hospitalizations is also drastic, jumping to 57%. Bellone said that 287 people have been hospitalized — an increase of 21 people. He said 50 of those people are in ICUs.

“That is the highest number since the end of May,” he said. “If we continue with this current pace by Christmas, we’ll have over 1,000 people in the hospitals with COVID-19.”

Bellone noted that at Suffolk County’s peak in the spring, when the region was the epicenter of the virus, there were 1,658 hospitalizations.

Kenneth Kaushansky, Dean of the Renaissance School of Medicine at Stony Brook University, said the number of COVID patients or suspected COVID patients was up to 85.

“Every day for the last week or so, we’ve seen 10 more patients in our hospital,” Kaushansky said on a conference call about vaccinations on Thursday. “It’s coming back at us.”

Kaushansky urged residents to stay away from parties, wash their hands, and to continue wearing masks.

Marilin Dilone, an Emergency Department Nurse at Stony Brook, said the second wave is “slowly happening. We’re seeing it again.”

She anticipates a smooth transition if the numbers continue to rise.

“We know what to expect,” Dilone said.

Dr. Eric Morley, Associate Professor and Clinical Director of the Department of Emergency Medicine at Stony Brook, described the staff as “battle tested.”

The hospital planned to open the forward triage unit, which the hospital used to separate suspected COVID patients during the first wave of the virus, next week.

On Monday, Mather Hospital President Kenneth Roberts said the hospital was at 64 percent occupancy, so it is “nowhere near capacity.” The hospital also has surge plans in place so that it can accommodate many more than 248 patients.

Robert Collins, a nurse at Mather for the last seven years, said the staff has learned from the difficult experiences through the spring.

“The benefit this go-round is that we’ve done it once,” Collins said. “We’re more familiar with treating it.”

St. Catherine Hospital has 30 COVID positive patients, which is 15% of their inpatient volume, while St. Charles has 11 COVID patients, which is 6.5% of the inpatient volume. Mather is still at 64% occupancy, which is the figure from earlier this week.

“The second wave and the post-Thanksgiving surge we talked about, we warned about, is here,” he said. “Luckily, we’ve taken a proactive approach.”

But Bellone said that although maintaining social distancing and wearing a mask outside is essential to staying safe, small gatherings are becoming the new super spreader.

“Now we know that small gatherings among families and friends have the highest transmission rate of all the events that we’ve seen,” he said. “So I cannot stress enough the concern about small indoor gatherings, where individuals and almost naturally let their guard down a little bit.”

Bellone said that Long Islanders must remain vigilant throughout the upcoming holiday season, while a vaccine is on the horizon.

“It is our actions over the next 30-plus days, that will be critical to our continued recovery,” he said. “That will be key to making sure that we keep our kids in school, keep our schools open, and keep our businesses open.”

He added that two new community-testing sites were launched in Huntington and Patchogue. So far, 349 people have been tested at the Huntington site.

Additional reporting from Daniel Dunaief