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On COVID's front lines, frustration with the stark toll of a 'preventable illness'

"We've been given interventions that at the end

"We've been given interventions that at the end of the day don't require a lot of any of us," said Dr. Anthony Lyon, a physician at Mount Sinai South Nassau hospital in Oceanside. Credit: Howard Simmons

Long Island nurses and doctors who have spent the past year and a half watching COVID-19 patients suffer and die say they’re frustrated and saddened by the sharp rise in coronavirus hospitalizations in recent weeks, because most patients are unvaccinated and likely would not be in the hospital if they had taken the vaccine.

Dr. Ambika Nath, of Glen Cove Hospital, said she and other physicians "felt somewhat hopeless" during the region’s COVID-19 peak in the spring of 2020, and optimistic when vaccines were released last December. Then, this summer, the highly contagious delta variant of the virus spread quickly through the region, infecting tens of thousands of Long Islanders and sending primarily unvaccinated people to the hospital.

What to know

Nurses and doctors at Long Island hospitals said they're frustrated and saddened by the sharp rise in COVID-19 hospitalizations in the past several weeks, because most patients are unvaccinated and likely wouldn't be hospitalized if they were vaccinated.

Long Island hospitalizations are more than eight times higher than two months ago, rising from 50 on July 9 to between 420 and 460 every day for more than two weeks.

Patients are, on average, noticeably younger than during the beginning of the pandemic, doctors and nurses said, reflecting how older adults are significantly more likely to be vaccinated than young adults.

"Now it’s a feeling of sadness," Nath said. "We have an opportunity to lessen the severity of this terrible pandemic and COVID-19 infection, but people are choosing not to be vaccinated and choosing to still put others at risk."

Dr. Adrian Popp, chair of infection control at Huntington Hospital, said it's difficult to watch suffering — and in some cases, death — that could have been averted.

"Seeing people come in and unable to breathe, it’s heartbreaking to me and also to the nursing staff and the other doctors I work with," he said. "To me, at this point, COVID, at least severe COVID, is a preventable illness."

As variant rages, unvaccinated hit hardest

COVID-19 hospitalizations on Long Island are more than eight times higher than just two months ago, reflecting the ease with which the delta variant spreads. There were 441 hospitalized coronavirus patients on Sunday, compared with 50 on July 9, state Health Department data shows. State numbers have shown a similar uptick.

Long Island hospital officials said that — unlike in states with low vaccination rates, where many hospitals are overwhelmed with COVID-19 patients — the region’s hospitals have been able to handle the influx.

New York’s relatively high vaccination rate — nearly 62% of residents are fully vaccinated, compared with under 54% nationwide — has kept numbers from going higher, as have the substantial number of people who wear masks in public, said Dr. David Battinelli, chief medical officer at Northwell Health.

Although the delta variant has caused an increase in COVID-19 infections even among vaccinated people, the unvaccinated are far more likely to contract the virus, get severely ill from it and die, according to multiple studies, including one released Friday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Popp said the few vaccinated patients in his hospital for COVID-19 are people whose bodies had a less robust immune response to the vaccines and have medical conditions that put them at higher risk for severe COVID-19.

On the other hand, unvaccinated patients include healthy people in their 30s, 40s and 50s.

"The people admitted are much younger than they used to be," Popp said. "The first wave of the epidemic was mainly senior citizens."

Older adults are much more likely to be vaccinated than younger adults: Nearly 88% of New Yorkers 65 to 74 are fully vaccinated, compared with about 61% of those 26 to 34 and 70% of people 35 to 54, according to State Health Department data.

Popp said some patients have expressed regret that they didn’t get vaccinated. A few weeks ago, one unvaccinated man "was getting worse and worse, and right before he got on the ventilator, he mentioned, ‘I wish I was vaccinated,’" Popp said. He died a few days later.

The unpredictability of COVID-19 means Popp can’t tell patients whether they’re going to improve "because I don’t know myself if they’re going to get better or not," he said. "COVID is such a random disease."

"You see people gasping for air, and they’re very, very scared," Popp said.

'Simple things' to prevent suffering

Dr. Anthony Lyon, a physician at Mount Sinai South Nassau hospital in Oceanside, said the easiest way to stay out of the hospital is to get vaccinated and wear a mask in public indoor settings, and "to see that level of suffering and that level of disease versus these simple things we can be doing to really have an impact, that’s where the nature of the frustration is. … We’ve been given interventions that at the end of the day don’t require a lot of any of us."

Zoila Nolasco, a nurse manager at NYU Langone Hospital-Long Island in Mineola, said many people who don’t get vaccinated or wear masks don’t realize how dangerous COVID-19 still is. They don’t see the severely ill patients she does every day.

"I think they would change their minds if they saw how sick people were," she said. "It’s real."

Dominique Rossi, a nurse at Good Samaritan Hospital in West Islip, said some unvaccinated patients are unnecessarily concerned about a vaccine that research shows is safe and effective. There have been rare cases of serious health issues after receiving the vaccine, but the virus is more likely than the vaccine to cause some of those issues, and there's a much greater chance of getting severely ill from COVID-19, experts say.

"I would really love them to not be so afraid," Rossi said. Of COVID-19, she said, "I keep seeing these numbers climb, and I keep seeing more people die from the virus."

Courtney Rheaume, a nurse at Peconic Bay Medical Center in Riverhead, said some nurses who have worked primarily with COVID-19 patients have requested transfers to different parts of the hospital.

"Caring for these patients is difficult emotionally, it’s difficult physically, and it takes a lot out of you," she said. "It’s easy to become burnt out in this environment. … We have witnessed a lot of death and suffering."

Rheaume said she puts her frustration aside when caring for unvaccinated patients and focuses on trying to save their lives and help them get better.

"We’re still doing absolutely everything we can to care for these patients," she said. "But it’s tough when you know there was a possibility they could not be here, that they could be at home."

What to know

Nurses and doctors at Long Island hospitals said they’re frustrated and saddened by the sharp rise in COVID-19 hospitalizations in the past several weeks, because most patients are unvaccinated and likely wouldn’t be hospitalized if they were vaccinated.

Long Island hospitalizations are more than eight times higher than two months ago, rising from 50 on July 9 to 441 on Sunday.

Patients are, on average, noticeably younger than during the beginning of the pandemic, doctors and nurses said, reflecting how older adults are significantly more likely to be vaccinated than young adults.

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