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Dowling on coronavirus: 'We've been through worse'

"If you're prepared, you will be less nervous"

"If you're prepared, you will be less nervous" about the virus outbreak, says Northwell Health CEO Michael J. Dowling. Credit: Barry Sloan

Michael J. Dowling, CEO of Northwell Health, the area’s largest health care provider, says the best response to the coronavirus outbreak is to stay calm and be prepared.  He spoke with Newsday reporter David Reich-Hale this week about anxiety and the role of the health care system and government in the fight against COVID-19.

Do you think there is panic, and if so, why?

I think it's not panic, but it's high anxiety, People are scared because you're dealing with a level of the unknown. How long will this be with us? We don't know. Does weather affect it? We aren't sure -- and that scares people. A lot of people can't deal with the lack of clarity, but if you think about it, there often isn't a lot of clarity in life.

What can be done to calm fears?

Constant communications. Tell people to stay calm, and talk about how we have been through a lot worse than this. H1N1 and Ebola are examples, and most people today can't remember when those events happened. We made it through Sandy too. We've made it through worse, and this won't be the last time we face something like this. 

What should be government's role?

Government plays a major role in calming people, promoting a realistic optimism. Be leaders, don't divide, and unify. 

What should be the role of health systems?

We are on the front lines. Everything we do, we do it through the lens of the community. We've taken a long view. After Ebola, we built an isolation unit at Glen Cove Hospital, where we house people who need to be isolated. This isn't something we haven't thought about. 

We also take great responsibility in caring for people. Health care workers are a special breed. They're like firemen running into a fire. They're on the front lines, testing people, meeting sick people, and putting themselves at risk -- and then they go home to their family, just like all of us.

What steps can individuals take?

Right now, do maximum hand washing. If someone is sick, keep your distance as best as you can. If you're sick, stay home. Go on with life as best as you can. If you're going to the gym, wipe down the equipment before and after. 

And keep a relative calm. If you're sick, see a doctor. If it's determined you have it, or may have it, quarantine yourself. 

How do you recommend a proper balance between being nervous and being prepared?

If you're prepared, you will be less nervous. If you're older with a respiratory problem, don't go to large events. If you have underlying issues, don't go to events. Use your best judgment. Use common sense. 

What is your greatest concern?

At the moment it's making sure we are at maximum strength. If employees come down with this, how do we handle it? How do we identify people who can help so we have a full compliment of staff when necessary? We know it's possible there will be a lot of people [patients] coming when they don't need to. So we have to be prepared to handle it.

What lessons can be learned from this?

It's always best to be prepared. Don't make an assumption something won't happen. Plan like it might, and if it doesn't, great. If it does? You're prepared. 

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