PBMC prepares for worst-case scenario; CEO says ‘we are prepared’

Peconic Bay Medical Center in Riverhead is preparing for a worst-case scenario if the number of confirmed COVID-19 patients overwhelms the 182-bed facility. 

“We have ordered tents if the need comes to that,” said Peconic Bay’s president and CEO, Andy Mitchell.

“We had a whole bunch of people [Thursday] come into our emergency room wanting to be checked out,” he said. “We are always here for our community. We ask people who are not showing symptoms to contact their primary doctor before they come to our emergency room. We want to reserve our resources for the truly sick.

Out here we have a high percentage of people over 60, 70 and 80. So we have a large at-risk population based on age. It is essential for those individuals to isolate themselves.

andY Mitchell

“We all recognize this is a very dynamic situation,” he added. “It changes in just a couple of hours. We are closely monitoring the hot spot in Southold/Greenport. Right now we have normal volumes in the facility. But we will implement our ‘surge capacity plan,’ if we have to. That will allow us to take areas of the hospital that are critical spaces and prepare them for new patients.”

In an interview with Mr. Mitchell and Amy Loeb, the hospital’s vice president and chief nursing officer, they both emphasized that a huge surge of patients coming to the facility – or any facility in the country – could quickly overwhelm the hospital and the country’s medical system. To that end, they said, PBMC has even ordered tents that could be set up as MASH-style hospital units outside the main buildings.

“We are prepared,” said Mr. Mitchell.

Peconic Bay is part of the Northwell Health system.

As of Friday, there were no confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Riverhead Town. Southold Town has 11 cases. Statewide cases has climbed to 421.

“We are in a fortunate position,” he added. “Next week we are opening an entirely new building. The old intensive care unit will go there, so all those beds will be available, another 22. The timing is good.

“If you look at the experiences in other parts of the world or country, we see this virus is exceedingly contagious,” he said. “It grows very quickly. That’s what Italy saw. Northwell has had us preparing for months now. We have worked it out.

“The template is there and in place to meet this need when it arises.”

As for specific equipment such as ventilators, both Mr. Mitchell and Ms. Loeb said they, as of now, have enough. “Ventilators are a finite resource,” he said. “But we have a lot of them. We don’t know if that will be enough” in a surge. “Right now we have the appropriate equipment.

“As for what is happening now, we are trying to change the curve [of confirmed cases] from a steep one to a shallow one,” he said. “If we can’t bend that bell curve and we get inundated — we can’t let a whole lot of people get sick at once. That’s why all the social distancing and stopping of large crowds of people. We can’t let people get sick all at once.”

To that end, he said, they have “made arrangements with outside tent companies.”

As for virus testing, perhaps the most controversial aspect of the nation’s response to the epidemic, Mr. Mitchell said, “The issue is you have to meet clinical criteria. We won’t test you because you want to be tested.”

He said Northwell’s lab in Lake Success will soon be fully automated and capable of doing more than a thousand tests a day. “We will be able to vastly increase the capacity,” he said.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo said Friday the capacity to test statewide will soon be about 6,000 a day.

As testing dramatically increases, Mr. Mitchell said it is likely the criteria a person must meet to be tested — such as high fever and difficulty breathing — will likely be relaxed.

“We are up to this challenge,” he added. “But the system will break down if everyone gets sick at the same time. Out here we have a high percentage of people over 60, 70 and 80. So we have a large at-risk population based on age. It is essential for those individuals to isolate themselves.

“Is this the worst one I’ve seen I my career? The answer is yes.”