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Surge in COVID-19 patients turns 11 Suffolk hospitals into battlefronts

A health care worker in an hazmat suit

A health care worker in an hazmat suit checks patients for coronavirus at a makeshift hospital at Good Samaritan Hospital in West Islip on Tuesday. Credit: James Carbone

The surge of COVID-19 patients over the past week forced Suffolk’s 11 hospitals into separate battlefronts against a virus that filled intensive care units with increasing numbers of patients who need the help of ventilators to breathe, according to closely held data obtained by Newsday.

The data offer a window into how the coronavirus threw a health care system serving 1.5 million people into scrambling day-by-day to expand capacity in the midst of an unprecedented crisis that took an increasing toll in lives.

Hospitals file an array of emergency caseload numbers daily into a state system established after superstorm Sandy. Newsday’s data is drawn from those reports. State and local officials, along with hospitals themselves, have kept similar information confidential as coronavirus swept across the Island.

Covering indicators such as the number of occupied ICU beds and the number of patients on ventilators, the data reflect the challenges faced by hospitals ranging from the independent Long Island Community Hospital in Patchogue to the giant Stony Brook University medical center and hospitals linked in the Northwell Health sprawling system.

The data provide a snapshot of the conditions at the hospitals on two dates, March 29 and April 5.

Countywide, intubations — meaning patients on ventilators — rose from 153 to 409 over the seven days and deaths quadrupled from 52 to 223. And four of Suffolk's hospitals were at capacity or had one or two ICU beds available, even as each scrambled to add beds and ventilators.

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Jaymie Meliker, an epidemiologist who is a professor at Stony Brook’s Program in Public Health and at the Renaissance School of Medicine, said Wednesday the numbers show that most hospitals have managed the load over the seven days.

But he cautioned that caseloads are still rising.

“It may be bad at the end of the week,” he said. “We haven’t seen the apex yet.”

The number of current cases reported in the hospital data refers only to confirmed COVID-19 cases, he said. In fact, hospitals have admitted many more patients who are suspected to have the virus, but whose cases have not yet been confirmed.

Still the numbers represent snapshots in time, as reported by hospitals to the Health Emergency Response Database.

As with many of the hospitals, Stony Brook University Hospital experienced steep increases in caseloads, the number of patients requiring ventilators and deaths.

Total COVID-19 patients rose from 120 to 271 on April 5. The number on ventilators climbed from 26 to 89 while deaths climbed from eight to 27.

At Stony Brook’s Southampton Hospital, the number of intubated patients increased from seven to 13. Deaths doubled from three to six.

At Stony Brook Eastern Long Island Hospital in Greenport, the number of COVID-19 patients went from three to five.

According to an internal email sent by Dr. Kenneth Kaushansky, dean of Stony Brook Hospital and senior vice president of health sciences, the number of confirmed and suspected COVID-19 cases at Stony Brook, as of Tuesday, totaled 404, or about 60 percent of the hospital’s normal maximum capacity.

One hundred patients with confirmed or suspect cases were on ventilators.

Kaushansky wrote that he expected a surge of more patients to hit within the next week. The hospital is preparing for that by converting ambulatory spaces and idle operating rooms, adding beds, canceling all elective surgeries and redeploying staff.

On March 29, Long Island Community Hospital in East Patchogue had 16 COVID-19 patients, seven of them intubated in intensive care. One person had died, according to the data. 

On April 5, there were 70 coronavirus patients — 39 of them on ventilators in an ever-growing number of intensive care beds. By that point, the hospital had lost 19 patients to the virus.

“I don’t think anybody expected anything that we’re seeing,” Richard T. Margulis, the hospital’s chief executive, said in an interview. “This is taking a tremendous toll on our staff and health care workers in general.”

As of noon Monday, a day after Newsday’s most recent data, Margulis said Long Island Community was up to 125 total COVID-19 patients, with 47 intubated. He said the hospital had already increased its ICU capacity from 24 to 63, with the expectation that the number may need to grow to between 90 to 100 as the local apex for the virus approaches.

The three Catholic Health Services hospitals in Suffolk County include Good Samaritan Hospital in West Islip, which Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo last week called a “hot spot” facility with one of the highest percentages of COVID-19 patients.

On March 29, the data obtained by Newsday showed that the hospital had 70 coronavirus patients, with 24 in intensive care.

By Sunday, those numbers had jumped to 217 and 72, with 71 of those intensive cases requiring intubations. As of that date, nearly 40 Good Samaritan patients had died of COVID-19-related complications, the numbers indicated.

“We are in a very fluid situation, where the number of patients continues to ebb and flow, often in the very same day,” Patrick O'Shaughnessy, Catholic Health Services’ executive vice president and chief clinical officer, said in a statement, noting that the data obtained by Newsday “presented are a fairly accurate representation of the trend.”

The county’s other Catholic Health hospitals also saw a large spike in COVID cases between March 29 and April 5. St. Charles Hospital in Port Jefferson went from 19 to 52, and St. Catherine of Siena in Smithtown grew from 35 to 91.

St. Catherine also had one of the county’s largest percentage of intensive care intubations, with 20 of 22 patients as of April 5.

“We, like all New York State hospitals are experiencing the impact of COVID-19,” O'Shaughnessy said in the statement. 

Northwell Health’s Mather Hospital, in Port Jefferson, was at capacity in ICU beds both on March 29 and April 5, even as the hospital expanded capacity from 20 to 37, according to the hospital data Newsday obtained. Deaths there have risen from a total of five to 17.

Northwell spokesman Terry Lynam confirmed the hospital was at capacity.

At Northwell’s Huntington Hospital, the number of deaths increased from 12 to 43 over the seven-day period. That was the most deaths of any hospital in Suffolk. Intubations doubled from 24 to 48.

The number of intubated patients at Peconic Bay Medical Center, also part of the Northwell system, rose from one to 13. The number of COVID-19 patients increased from 35 to 81 while deaths climbed from five to eight.

At Northwell’s Southside Hospital in Bay Shore, the number of intubated patients rose from 39 to 69. The number of COVID-19 patients went from 105 to 291. Deaths rose from five to 30. 

Spokesman Lynam said he couldn’t speak to factors that would lead to the variability in deaths between hospitals but said it would include factors such as the age of patients.

Still, he said beds were available within the system and patients were being shifted between facilities as needed. 

Ventilators, “are not an issue with us. We have plenty of vents. Less than 80 percent of vents are in use,” he said. Whenever one facility is low on ventilators, others are brought in from other areas in the network.

At Southside Hospital, which was at 98 percent capacity on Tuesday, they were putting up a tent in front of the hospital. 

“We're entering the second phase of our surge planning,” Lynam said Tuesday. Over the past week, they’ve added 1,400 beds. Over next week, they’ll add another 800 to 1,000 beds.”

Stony Brook University spokeswoman Lauren Sheprow said the system could not confirm the data.

Margulis, the CEO of Long Island Community Hospital, said that the state Department of Health has told the facility that its service area of southern Brookhaven has the potential to become “a particular surge area,” Margulis said.

As of Monday, the hospital had 57 ventilators on hand. Margulis said he could foresee using as many as 65.

“We’re preparing, always, for the worst,” Margulis said. “What happened in the last 24 hours? What’s going to happen in the next 24 hours?” 

The hospital, which is not affiliated with a large private or public network, has put out a call for additional medical staff and volunteers to help meet the possible surge and to supplement and relieve its full-time roster of about 1,800. And the need for more personal protective equipment continues, he said.

“We are ravenous always, as is every hospital, for additional personal protective equipment,” Margulis said. “Everybody was caught off guard by the disease, this pandemic and the need for personal protective equipment, so we can never get enough.”

In anticipation of the surge, O'Shaughnessy with Catholic Health Services said the system “built a plan to more than double system capacity” and has “brought in and continues to secure additional equipment to ensure we can manage the surge. This is an evolving situation.” 

He noted that Catholic Health Services is able to transfer patients between facilities to manage capacity and supplies.

“Right now we are able to meet patients’ need within our system,” O'Shaughnessy said. “Going forward, all options will be considered with our health care colleagues.”

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