STATEN ISLAND, N.Y. — As the number of coronavirus (COVID-19) cases rise on Staten Island, the borough’s hospitals are working to prepare for a possible second wave of patients infected with the virus.
On Sunday, Gov. Andrew Cuomo said Staten Island is on a “warning track” and could see areas entering an orange zone and a red zone this week if the trend of coronavirus cases continues at this rate. Additionally, he said the borough’s hospitals are seeing problems with capacity and being overburdened.
“Staten Island is a serious problem,” the Governor said. “Staten Island is also a problem in terms of overburdening hospitals and we’re running into a hospital capacity issue on Staten Island, which we have to be dealing with over the next few days.”
Staten Island University Hospital (SIUH), which has two locations in Ocean Breeze and Prince’s Bay, is caring for 102 patients, an increase of 10 since Saturday. Richmond University Medical Center (RUMC) in West Brighton is caring for 16 patients, an increase of one patient since Saturday.
ARE STATEN ISLAND HOSPITALS SEEING INCREASES?
SIUH Executive Director Dr. Brahim Ardolic told the Advance/SILive.com that there is “no question” the hospital is seeing a fairly large increase in the number of people with COVID-19.
“I think that there’s this sense that the disease is not as bad as it was in the spring and we’ve heard that so many times,” Ardolic said. “I don’t think there’s any question that the disease is different now in terms of the numbers of people who are actually dying is dramatically less. With that said, though, I think the major reason that less people are dying is because the therapies are so much better. So what you are seeing is people coming to the hospital and requiring very long hospitalizations with a lot of therapy.”
“So the honest answer to the question is, yeah, we’re seeing a fairly dramatic increase in the number of people representing with COVID,” he added.
Ardolic explained that SIUH started November with its number of COVID-19 patients in the low 20s. That number is now at 102 as of Sunday. And those patients in the hospital are almost exclusively Staten Island patients, he said.
“This is definitely, definitely, definitely repercussions of lack of social distancing and lack of mask-wearing through Halloween, through the first few days in November. There’s no question,” he said.
RUMC currently isn’t seeing a capacity issue, according to spokesman Alex Lutz — citing the hospital has more than 470 total beds available.
“I can tell you that right now, it is not a capacity issue for RUMC,” Lutz said. “At the height of the pandemic back in the spring, what we saw was a very quick rise in patients being admitted.”
The number of patients admitted to the hospital with COVID-19 has fluctuated throughout the month, Lutz said, staying in the single digits or teens the majority of November. It reached its highest point this month on Nov. 24 with 24 patients, which quickly dropped down back into the teens just a day later. The number of patients in the intensive care unit (ICU) has stayed in the single digits, as well. Just one patient was in the ICU on Sunday, Lutz said.
“So when you talk about, ‘are we nearing capacity?’ the answer is right now, ‘no,’” he said. “That can very easily change if, as the governor pointed out, we don’t see adherence to the CDC guidelines, the state, city guidelines. So we are continuing to urge everyone to continue to socially distance, hand hygiene, mask-wearing — all of those things that were proven to bring the virus down over the summer.”
HOW ARE THEY PREPARING FOR A SECOND WAVE?
RUMC and SIUH both explained they are much more prepared should there be a second wave of the coronavirus that hits Staten Island.
“I think we’re much more prepared,” Ardolic said. “It’s interesting because now we have all these things ready — it’s just a question of making sure that we have the space and the ability to take care of the people that we need to take care of. But yeah, we definitely weren’t taken by surprise for PPE; we weren’t taken by surprise for supplies or even for staff. We did a lot of preparation so that we could spike fairly dramatically if we needed to and actually have the people. At some point though you do have to be careful and make sure that you have enough places to put everybody to be able to take care of everybody.”
The hospitals are equipped with enough PPE should a second wave arrive — complying with the governor’s mandate over the summer that hospitals have a 90-day supply of PPE at all times.
“We have that experience now, that flexibility, that versatility that [we need] if we do see things beginning to rise; we’re already planning for it…We have that experience from the spring to rely on — on quickly being able to increase bed capacity and everything else,” Lutz said. “We have more than complied with the mandate that was issued by the governor a few months back of having at least 90 days of PPE so we have that but we are well prepared for any surge, resurgence of cases. But as you can see by the numbers that I’m giving you we’re seeing gradual increases, but we are not seeing that very quick uprising of cases.”
Doctors, nurses, and medical staff also have more experience in dealing with the coronavirus — using the best procedures on patients. The hope, Lutz explained, is to keep coronavirus numbers low so it’s manageable.
“…People just need to continue doing what we’ve been doing and then we won’t overburden the systems,” Lutz said. “Obviously that has that domino effect the governor talked about — we don’t want to overburden our health care system, we don’t want people to get sick, we don’t want people to pass away, and we don’t want businesses to close. All these things are tied together.”
ARE THEY INCREASING HOSPITAL BEDS?
Lutz explained that it’s a different situation for hospitals now as opposed to the start of the pandemic in the spring. Capacity was quickly ramped up at RUMC in the spring — when the hospital increased its ICU beds from 26 to 71 in just two days.
Ardolic told the Advance/SILive.com that SIUH has increased hospital beds dramatically and has already increased COVID-19 areas.
“We’re now in the process of flexing into some of the beds that we actually intentionally kept open,” Ardolic said. “In the spring, the governor asked us to maintain a certain amount of ‘extra capacity’ so we never left that. We still had that capacity so we had additional beds available at both the North and the South sites that would allow us to expand into those areas and move our patients around so that we can take care of the surge. So, yeah, we’ve opened up a fairly significant amount of beds.”
By Tuesday, he said SIUH will have added more than 50 beds to the system, and converted additional non-COVID-19 beds into COVID-19 beds.
WHY ARE WE SEEING A RISE?
Ardolic explained that it’s important for people to see the rising coronavirus numbers and think about where it came from. He attributes the rise to Staten Islanders congregating, not wearing masks, and not social distancing during the period from Halloween to Election Day and the days after.
“There was a lot of activity all through Staten Island, a lot of gathering and I don’t think there’s any question that what we’re seeing now is the aftermath of a lot of those get togethers,” he said. “So what I would say is, the easiest way to get the cases to go down, the easiest way to get everybody back to regular life, the easiest way to get all the businesses back open, is for everybody to just agree that we’re going to wear masks and that we’re going to be careful and smart about mass gatherings.
And now, Ardolic’s priority is to make sure the hospital can continue to provide services the community needs if there is a second wave. In the spring, many people stayed away from hospitals because of their fear of contracting the coronavirus, he said.
“I think the concern here now is how do we continue to be able to take care of our population and still take care of this — what hopefully will be a short term surge of patients,” he said. “…There’s definitely a concern. It’s different than the spring…I don’t think we’re in a position to be able to not take care of our community for another six weeks by just shutting down and saying we’re going to take care of only COVID patients. It would be too much harm and too much risk to the community.”
Lutz explained that the hospital anticipated that coronavirus cases would increase.
“We hoped that they wouldn’t [increase], but the best thing for RUMC is that since this whole thing began last March…we have never stopped learning and preparing and what should we do the next time to make it more efficient, what did we learn,” he said. “We’ve constantly continued to drill, have meetings virtual or by the phone, making sure that everything is taken into account, including our own internal policies, making sure everyone’s wearing masks, and limiting elevator occupancy to four people. All of these things to make sure that not only are we taking care of the patients, but that we have the ability to be there when Staten Island needs us.”