Photo: Denise Civiletti

Peconic Bay Medical Center has seen about 100 confirmed COVID-19 cases so far and currently has 20 COVID patients hospitalized, with eight of them in the intensive care unit, according to hospital leadership.

Another 10 patients in the hospital are awaiting test results, according to Peconic Bay Medical Center president and CEO Andrew Mitchell.

Since the outbreak began two weeks ago, there has been a noticeable uptick in the percentage of patients who are testing positive, Mitchell said in an interview this morning — along with an increase in the number of patients suspected to have the disease.

LIVE UPDATES: Coronavirus coverage, closings and cancellations.

Patients who test positive but are well enough to go home are discharged with instructions to self-quarantine, which is mandatory for people who are confirmed positive.

The hospital began preparing for the arrival of coronavirus on the East End in January, Mitchell said.

“We’ve repurposed our 2-South Unit as a COVID positive unit, for patients who don’t require ICU care,” he said. Non-COVID patients have been moved to other areas of the hospital.

PBMC had an existing 12-bed intensive care unit and just opened a 16-bed ICU that was built in the hospital’s new critical care tower. It is ready to use the new ICU for COVID patients and plans to convert the surgical recovery area into a patient care area as needed, Mitchell said.

“We are in the process of diminishing the number of rehab patients in the skilled nursing facility as well, so we can free up beds in there for patients,” he said.

The Northwell Health system, which operates the Riverhead hospital, discontinued all elective surgeries last week, to help free up beds in anticipation of a large influx of COVID patients.

PBMC is licensed for 140 beds, but typically operates at 120, Mitchell said.

“I think Amy’s got us up to 200 beds,” he said, referring to PBMC’s deputy executive director, Amy Loeb.

Window in PBMC’s new critical care pavilion looks out on the adjacent Bishop McGann-Mercy High School, which the hospital has leased for additional patient space if needed during the COVID-19 pandemic. File photo: Denise Civiletti

Mitchell said PBMC has arranged with Suffolk County FRES to have cots brought over so that the hospital can start putting patients in rooms on the former McGann-Mercy High School campus, which adjoins the hospital property. PBMC has signed a lease with the Diocese of Rockville Centre for use of the site during the pandemic.

“I really want to thank the Diocese of Rockville Centre for being so helpful so quickly,” Mitchell said.

Governor: Hospitals should try to double their capacity

Gov. Andrew Cuomo has ordered all hospitals in the state to increase their capacity by a minimum of 50%, with a goal of doubling their licensed capacities. The state health department is waiving regulations that effectively limit the number of patient beds a hospital can accommodate. Cuomo said the state will need as many as 110,000 beds at the peak of the outbreak here — which is expected to arrive within 21 days, according to modeling being done by epidemiologists at Weill-Cornell and healthcare consultants McKinsey & Company.

Cuomo today reported New York’s confirmed positive cases were nearing 31,000 — with 17,856 in New York City’s five boroughs, 3,285 in Nassau and 2,280 in Suffolk.

The number of COVID cases in New York is growing more rapidly and is expected to peak more quickly than originally projected, Cuomo said.

The state is scrambling to procure the ventilators it believes it will need to save the lives of the most critical COVID patients who cannot breathe on their own. The state estimates it will need 30,000 ventilators at the pandemic’s peak.

Cuomo said today New York scoured the globe to find and purchase — so far — more than 7,000 ventilators, to add to the existing 4,000 ventilators already in New York. The federal government is supplying another 4,000 to New York. Even if private companies the President has been negotiating with to manufacture the equipment were to start sourcing parts today, it would be nearly impossible for them to have 15,000 ventilators ready to deploy in New York within three weeks.

The governor is asking the federal government to facilitate what he called a “rolling deployment” of ventilators, so that the life-saving equipment can be deployed where it is most needed. Right now, that’s New York, which has nearly 10 times the number of confirmed COVID patients than the state with the second-highest number, according to statistics presented by the governor during a press briefing today.

“Address the hot spot,” Cuomo said. “You don’t have to supply equipment for the entire country at one time. Once the hot spot turns then you deal with the next hot spot,” Cuomo said.

“We need help and resources from the entire country right now because our apex is first and our numbers are highest,” he said.

In the same way, Peconic Bay Medical center is stepping up to help other Northwell hospitals in or close to the city, which Mitchell called “ground zero.”

“All of the Northwell hospitals have accepted transfers from LIJ-Valley Stream and North Shore Forest Hills,” he said. PBMC currently has three transfers from the other hospitals.

So far, Northwell’s hospitals in the eastern region of the island have fewer COVID patients, Mitchell said.

“Our numbers are very similar to Mather,” he said. “But further west, it’s a different story. For example, Huntington Hospital has over 80 positives and 23 rule-outs,” he said, referring to patients who are suspected COVID cases but who have not yet been confirmed.

Riverhead Police Chief David Hegermiller said this morning there are 50 addresses in Riverhead Town where confirmed or suspected COVID patients reside. The town gets a daily update from the Suffolk County health department every morning.

Mitchell said as people relocate into their summer homes — many are looking to escape the densely populated environment of New York City during the health crisis — and the population rises to summertime levels, he expects to see more COVID patients arriving at Peconic Bay.

PBMC has redirected emergency department traffic to the entrance on Route 58.
Photo: Peter Blasl

So far at least, the hospital has not needed to open the emergency department expansion it hastily built in the ground-floor empty “shell” adjoining the existing emergency department. The area, part of the critical care tower, was intended to accommodate future emergency department expansion. Hospital leadership decided to quickly build out the interior as the hospital braced for a deluge of COVID patients.

“It’s ready to go,” Mitchell said.

The volume in the emergency department has been manageable so far without the additional space, Loeb said.

“Our community has responded to the call to not come unless absolutely necessary,” Loeb said. “But we are seeing some really sick patients come into the emergency department,” she said.

“So far we have not been overwhelmed,” Mitchell said.

“If people continue to self-quarantine and stay home, we’re hopeful we’re not going to see the same crashing wave as we’re already seeing in New York City and up west,” Mitchell said, “but we are very concerned it will happen here as well.”

The hospital is doing everything it possibly can to be prepared for what might be coming.

“We recognize this is a marathon,” Mitchell said. “We’re in it for the long haul.”

At this point, hospital staffing is sufficient and PBMC has not had any hospital staff members sidelined with a COVID diagnosis, Loeb said. As the virus becomes more prevalent in the community, that is bound to happen, she said.

Currently its supply of masks, gowns and gloves is adequate.

“So far we’re OK,” Mitchell said. “If the community can continue to contribute protective gear that would be great. We’re trying to build as big an inventory as possible. We don’t know how many patients we’ll have to deal with and we have no sense of how much of those supplies we’ll really need,” he said.

“The community has been absolutely fantastic,” Loeb said. “People have been donating masks and gloves, as well as bottled water and meals,” she said. “We can’t thank the community enough.”

The hospital started a “meal train” for donations of meals to the teams of doctors, nurses, technicians and other staff who are working shifts around the clock and don’t have the opportunity to get outside meals.

Mitchell said he thinks the termination of all visiting at the hospitals, while the smart thing to do, also made what’s going on inside the hospital sort of invisible to the community.

“You know, when you’re outside driving around, going to get some groceries or just taking a ride, you don’t see what we’re seeing inside the hospital,” Mitchell said. It’s like the hospital staff is living in an alternate reality.

“I would implore people to understand their actions can make a huge difference,” Mitchell said. “What’s happening in the hospital right now is very, very significant. Please, stay at home, social distance,” he said.

“If you were here inside the hospital, you would have a very different sense of reality than you do on the outside,” Mitchell said.

“I don’t think people realize how serious this situation is.”

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Denise Civiletti
Denise is a veteran local reporter, editor, attorney and former Riverhead Town councilwoman. Her work has been recognized with numerous awards, including investigative reporting and writer of the year awards from the N.Y. Press Association. She is a founder, owner and co-publisher of this website.Email Denise.