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Northwell CEO Dowling: 'The good news is we will hit all these metrics soon'

Michael J. Dowling, CEO of Northwell Health, said his "greatest concern is as we reopen, there isn't an ample amount of social distancing and people don't wear masks." Credit: Newsday Staff

Michael J. Dowling, CEO of Northwell Health, the area's largest health care provider and private employer, said hospitals have seen a massive downturn in COVID-19 patients, and that the region is close to a reopening of some kind. He spoke to Newsday on Friday, and warned that if social distancing doesn't remain in place, a lot of the gains made will be lost.

Where is Long Island on the curve of the pandemic? We are in a real down slide. We were at almost 3,500 patients and now we are at 758. Some of our hospitals have 10. Each day, some of our hospitals see single digits in these patients. Last weekend, we had a hospital admit no one. If you look at these metrics, we are over the hump, which makes it much easier to manage. We are doing a lot of testing in the community. We've started the reopening process, doing surgeries that have been deferred. We've deferred about 12,000 surgeries, and we can't defer them any longer without it leading to bad outcomes. We couldn't have done any of this a few weeks ago.

What's your message to Long Islanders, who are anxious and want to reopen? The state wants to open up the economy as quickly, but as carefully, as possible. There is a lot of frustration, and I get that. People want to get out of their home. They want to work. If there wasn't frustration, there would be something wrong with all of us.

The state leans on specific metrics to reopen, including one that focuses on bed capacity. How do you view that metric? The state was looking at this with ambulatory care and surgeries as well, and there is no relationship between ambulatory care and ICU beds. First of all, ambulatory patients come in the morning and leave that same night. As far as bed capacity, if there is a surge, we know how to create new beds and we know how to create them immediately. We know how to manage this now, and that's a good thing. We added 2,000 new beds for this, so if we had to do it again, we would, quickly. The good news is we will hit all these metrics soon.

What are your immediate greatest concerns? My greatest concern is as we reopen, there isn't an ample amount of social distancing and people don't wear masks. Businesses need to reopen, but have to protect employees and the public. There is a social responsibility for people to do the right thing, because if there is a recurrence, and everything closes again, it would be devastating. It would be devastating for hospitals, too. We are losing $300 million to $400 million per month at Northwell. The reopening has to be done right.

How will health care change because of COVID-19? Well, telehealth is very useful and convenient. That's one change. But COVID also showed us the inequities in health care delivery and access and we have seen that vividly. We must repair the inequities. I've spoken to pastors, and I have made a commitment to do as much as I can to prevent this in the future. I have an obligation to make as much of an impact as possible with Northwell. There are social determinants such as nutrition and preventive care. But Northwell can only do so much. The state and the federal government play a role in this, too, and I expect this will be a big part of the presidential campaign.

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