For two local hospital CEOs, what is ahead for COVID-19 is worrisome

While neither hospital executive can predict what is coming in the next few weeks as COVID-19 cases rise, both Andy Mitchell at Peconic Bay Medical Center in Riverhead and Paul Connor at Stony Brook Eastern Long Island Hospital in Greenport are genuinely concerned.

“There have been a couple of days this month when we were alarmed at the higher rates” of positive cases, said Mr. Connor, the CEO of Stony Brook Eastern Long Island Hospital. “We had two since May, then in early November we jumped to six.

“We saw the spike, and we are hopeful it is an aberration,” he added. “We have to make sure our staff is prepared for this. We don’t want anyone to forget our experience in March and April. We have sufficient personal protective equipment unless we have a worse blowout than the spring. I pray that doesn’t happen.”

Mr. Connor and Mr. Mitchell, president and CEO at PBMC, closely study the daily coronavirus numbers each day and try to plot a course for the coming days and weeks, as Thanksgiving and then the December holidays arrive and the weather grows colder.

Last week, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced new business restrictions, and Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone called on county residents to stay home as much as possible as a much anticipated second COVID-19 wave seems to have arrived.

Last week, the county average eclipsed 300 new coronavirus cases in the previous seven days, up from 119 the week before. On November 10, the county reported 412 new cases, the most since May 1. By the end of last week, that number grew to 428, which translates to an infection rate of 3.6%

At PBMC, CEO Andy Mitchell has kept a keen eye on coronavirus data, on PPE supplies and on the wellbeing of his staff – who from March to the end of May treated 450 patients in the facility. For those doctors, nurses and support staff, the day-to-day experiences were exhausting and an emotional roller coaster.

What is he seeing now?

“We are seeing an increase in both emergency room visits and admissions to the hospital,” he said. “It’s also true we have definitely gotten better at treating it, so I would say, so far, the number of patients going from check-in to the ICU has been less. We are able in many cases to care for them without ventilators and the ICU. But not in all cases.”

PBMC CEO Andrew Mitchell at a January event. (Credit: Mahreen Khan/file)

He said the daily influx of COVID-19 patients now bounces around from low single digits to, this month, when the numbers spiked to double digits. “I don’t recall anything over 10,” he added. “It’s not unlike back in the spring from the standpoint that you just don’t know where these numbers are going to go.

“[We] are concerned we will be overrun again,” he said. “The numbers will likely go up through the holidays. All the college kids are coming home for the holiday break and assuming some have COVID, there will be more community spread.”

Mr. Mitchell said it looks like Halloween was a community spread, “but not as significant out here as farther west. But as the holidays come, as it gets colder, as people go indoors, we will see an increase.”

“It will go into double digits,” he added. “I am sure it will. Whether it goes into triple digits – hopefully not. But who knows?”

In Greenport, Mr. Connor has overseen an increase in negative air rooms where positive patients can be isolated. He feels his staff is prepared. But the numbers are alarming.

“The highest number since May was two,” he said. “Some days we had zero. It was rare to have even one. Beginning in November we had one, then on the sixth we had two, and then on the thirteenth we had six. We were alarmed. These were people from the community. It’s out there.”

PBMC’s experience last spring has resulted in Mr. Mitchell feeling more confident that coronavirus patients can be treated with better outcomes.

“Treatment modalities are improving,” he said. “We have learned what combinations (of treatments) to use. We have reduced the severity.

“If you look at the data right now, the death rate is down,” he said. “The hospital rate across the country is one percent. We are improving how we treat this. With the new vaccines we are even more hopeful. Realistically, we have to get through the winter and the spring before we have vaccines ready for the general public.

“But more cases are coming, they are definitely coming,” he said.