“We kind of ignored this nationally. We pretended that it didn’t exist and blamed people who said that it did exist. In doing so we lost valuable time.”
Isolate now until further notice and the Coronavirus crisis can be managed and the economy will eventually right itself.
That’s the strong advice from Michael Dowling, the president and CEO of Northwell Health in New York and Governor Andrew Cuomo’s point person on strategy for developing hospital surge capacity in the battle against the coronavirus.
Dowling, a native of Knockaderry, Co. Limerick and leader of Northwell, New York State’s largest healthcare provider, with 75,000 employees spoke with the Irish Voice on Tuesday afternoon about the coronavirus pandemic and Northwell’s round the clock efforts keep up with the sharply rising number of cases in the state each day – more than 25,000 as of Tuesday afternoon. He commended New Yorkers for their efforts so far to stay contained at home and added that isolation is the only way to combat the spread of the deadly virus which has killed 210 in the state.
“It is unbelievably important to isolate,” said Dowling. “It’s one of the best preventative ways to try and stop the transmission. That’s been demonstrated not only here but everywhere else.
“There is a huge economic impact of course, especially with the closing of businesses, and I know people are worried about the economy. But if we don’t contain this now the effects on the economy will be even worse. It is crucially important that people comply with the regulations.”
As far as predicting when the surge in cases might level off, replaced with some measure of light at the end of a long tunnel, Dowling says it’s “impossible” to tell.
“I think we will know a lot by the end of April. There are many different projections on this. I think if we can get through to April we’ll know better where we are at that point,” he says.
Northwell owns 23 hospitals throughout New York State and more than 750 outpatient facilities. They are operating on all cylinders as Northwell copes with the surge – as of Tuesday, its hospitals were treating 800 patients who tested positive for COVID-19.
“It doesn’t seem like a lot, but we have many more who haven’t gotten test results yet. And they all have to be isolated. You can’t put them together. So it presents a big challenge on the management level,” Dowling says.
Medical supplies are in huge demand worldwide, with Governor Cuomo pleading for greater federal assistance during his daily press briefings. The problem is huge, Dowling says, but he feels Northwell and New York hospitals will be able to hold up.
“For now we are okay. I’m scouring every place across the world to get the masks and the gloves and the ventilators. Over time I think we will be okay because some of the manufacturing plants in China have reopened and they are in production,” Dowling says.
“But it’s scary, and a stress factor. As long as we can keep getting supply over the next few weeks it will be okay.”
About 40,000 of Northwell’s 72,000 workforce are working remotely from home. Those on the frontlines are “tired but they are upbeat,” Dowling says. Many staff members are being retrained in new skills to help cope with the unprecedented crisis, and every inch of physical Northwell space is being used – even the lobby at its Long Island Jewish Medical Center in Queens has been turned into a triage facility.
The coronavirus pandemic will pass, Dowling says, and the lessons to be learned will be many.
“The first is we have to take these things very seriously from the beginning,” he says. “We kind of ignored this nationally. We pretended that it didn’t exist and blamed people who said that it did exist. In doing so we lost valuable time.
“We should have put social distancing in place a lot sooner. Governor Cuomo is doing a very good job. It was basically left to the states to do things.
“Secondly, we have to replenish our supply of basic protective equipment. The fact that we are scrounging around looking for things like masks during a time of crisis is ridiculous.”
Trillions of dollars will have to be re-invested in the U.S. economy to compensate for the staggering losses, but Dowling says that much more funding will have to be allocated for medical research as well.
“We simply must invest in the Centers for Disease Control, whose budgets have been cut or remained the same for years, and we have to invest in more research through the National Institute for Health.
“We will have other things like this and they won’t be as bad, but we live in an interconnected world and a virus doesn’t need a passport. You can’t build a wall to keep a virus out.”
Dowling is grateful that health care workers are getting what he says is long overdue respect.
“Often those working in healthcare are treated like punching bags…hospitals are bad places, health care workers are inefficient, things like that,” he says.
“But when you have a crisis like this, we are it. Health care workers are the most important people in the world right now.”