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Inside Northwell's hospitals, Dowling says, 'It's not like anything you've ever seen'

Northwell Health CEO Michael Dowling on COVID-19: "I

Northwell Health CEO Michael Dowling on COVID-19: "I do think we have potentially turned the corner. The last couple days, it's been flattening." Credit: Barry Sloan

Michael Dowling, CEO of Northwell Health, the area’s largest health care provider with 11 hospitals on Long Island, said front-line medical staff are "heroes," it's too early to tell if the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic is behind us and that flattening the curve has saved lives. He spoke with Newsday on Wednesday about the importance of being vigilant about social distancing, the positive trend of fewer coronavirus patients coming to Northwell hospitals, and what comes next for the health care industry.

Where do we stand in the curve of the pandemic?

I do think we have potentially turned the corner. The last couple days, it's been flattening. We've been discharging 450 to 500 people per day in recent days, and we've seen the number of people coming in flatten. But we have to be cautious, because we could be in for a big surprise tomorrow. We also need to be careful about how we return to normalcy, because if that's done inappropriately, this could quickly reactivate.

Have you been in the hospitals? What do you see?

We've created about 1,500 beds, and many of our hospitals are fully occupied. I've walked the floors, been in the ICUs, and 95% of our hospitals are COVID. It's an experience you will never forget. Normally, you'll walk through a hospital and you'll see someone who is very sick, but then you'll go in another room and people are happy because they're going home. Here, everyone is unbelievably sick, and there are no visitors to be with them. It's not like anything you've ever seen. 

How is Northwell positioned?

As long as the influx keeps slowing down, the capacity isn't really an issue, but we are still opening new areas with beds, just in case. One thing we've been able to do, and we can do this because of our size, is move people if need be. Forest Hills, for example, is in the epicenter. We've moved nearly 500 patients from there to other facilities. If we didn't do that, Forest Hills would be overrun and swamped. We couldn't operate without load balancing.

What do you say to the nurses and others who have been on the front lines? What do you say about the concerns about a dwindling supply of personal protective equipment?

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The staff is tired. They're emotionally drained. They're heroes. We are doing everything in this system to support them, although it requires a certain skill set [to handle COVID-19 patients]. They're the troops on the front lines, and if a battle is to be won, it's by them on the front lines. The PPEs have gotten a lot of print, and at one point we were down to less than a week. But now we are OK with it.

What will be the biggest post-COVID-19 challenge for health care providers?

COVID-positive patients will be here for a long time. What happens when they go home? How do we provide after care? What will they need? It's not like COVID care ends, and we have to be prepared in case it raises its ugly head again later. Also, how do we bring back the business we kept out at an enormous expense? We lost hundreds of millions of dollars per month. We also did a lot of construction to refit hospitals. When it's proper, we will have to figure out how to get back to business, because we can't sustain this level of losses for a long time. Nobody can. But this will take a while.

What did health care get right with COVID-19?

I think we've proved to have a resilient, core health care system. The way our staff has handled it is extraordinary. The community has come together as well.

What did health care get wrong?

No one had enough stockpiles. We had a mass pandemic and didn't have enough ventilators. We have to think as an industry, how do we manufacture this? We also need to diversify where we get our supplies. Masks were only coming from China? We have to diversify. 

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