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On High Alert as COVID-19 Hits East End

Thu, 03/12/2020 - 10:14
At the East Hampton Healthcare Foundation on Tuesday, Dr. George Dempsey, Kristen Gavidia, and Alyssa Cruceta returned from the parking lot after interviewing and examining a patient in her car who had possible COVID-19 symptoms.
Doug Kuntz

As the spread of COVID-19 reached the East End this week, at least one East Hampton doctor has begun making house calls to the elderly, a new triage unit is being set up at Stony Brook Southampton Hospital, East Hampton Town has closed its senior citizens center, a family in Montauk remains under a precautionary two-week quarantine at home after returning from Italy on Monday, and the Sag Harbor School District announced it will close through March 22.

As of yesterday morning, Suffolk County had six confirmed cases, including a man in his 40s from Southold who was being treated at Stony Brook Southampton Hospital. Seven additional people were in mandatory isolation and 72 were in precautionary isolation. By yesterday afternoon, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said Suffolk’s confirmed cases had jumped to eight. The governor declared a state of emergency over the weekend.

Twenty-two State University study-abroad students are in the first week of a 14-day precautionary quarantine at the Stony Brook Southampton campus after returning from high-risk countries. 

Those under precautionary quarantine are “all individuals who are returning from abroad,” Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone said at a press briefing yesterday morning. All of them have been screened for the virus and “none are symptomatic,” he said. Those under mandatory quarantine, he said, are people who have contracted the virus or “been in direct contact with people who had the virus.”

New York State had surpassed 210 cases yesterday, the second most of any state, but had no deaths related to the virus. Most of the people who have tested positive are recovering at home or have already recovered, the governor said. 

The virus’s creep eastward over the weekend came as no surprise to Dr. George Dempsey of East Hampton Family Medicine. Coronavirus “is going to happen” in East Hampton, Dr. Dempsey, who announced plans to make house calls, told the East Hampton Town Board last Thursday, “and it’s going to happen very rapidly. I’m not meaning to sound at all alarmist, but . . . we should be planning now and being prepared in a rational way.”

“Testing of those suspected of being infected is several weeks away,” Dr. Dempsey said, “so we have no way of anticipating or being ahead of it.” At the East Hampton Healthcare Foundation on Pantigo Place, “we’re going to triage patients at the entrance . . . because it makes no sense for someone sick to come in and make other people sick,” he said. “There’s nothing really we can do for them: It’s either bed rest, get well, or if you’re really that sick, you need to be in the hospital. You don’t need to be anywhere else.” 

A medical center “could be a center of incubation for the community,” Dr. Dempsey warned.

The county’s first case of COVID-19 was confirmed over the weekend. The patient is a Greenport Harbor Brewing Company employee who is recovering at Stony Brook Southampton Hospital. Mr. Bellone said a Southold Town resident in her early 20s is in home isolation with a confirmed case, and that those two cases are directly connected to each other. Other cases in the county as of yesterday afternoon include three Brookhaven Town residents who are in their 20s and 30s, and a man in his 80s who is in isolation at St. Catherine of Siena Hospital in Smithtown.

Newsday reported late Tuesday that one patient is an employee at Peconic Landing, a retirement community in Greenport that closed its health center to nonessential visits on Monday before that news came to light. Robert J. Syron, Peconic Landing’s chief executive officer, said Monday that “because it’s more severe for seniors, we’ve taken some more significant, probably the most significant, steps.” Handshakes are prohibited, all cultural and entertainment activities have been canceled, and it’s an all-hands-on-deck scenario for employees.

Peconic Landing serves about 400 people. The Hamptons Center for Rehabilitation and Nursing, a nursing home and care facility in Southampton, could not be reached for comment this week.

Barbara Jo Howard, a spokeswoman for Stony Brook Southampton Hospital, confirmed that there is a new “forward triage unit” being set up at the hospital’s Parrish Hall.

“All patients who present to the institution, both to ambulatory sites and the emergency department, are screened on arrival using the [Centers for Disease Control] recommendations,” she said by email. “Anyone who the clinician believes is a suspected case of COVID-19 is immediately placed on respiratory isolation, and infection control and the [County Health Department] are contacted. The current protocol includes a detailed attempt to eliminate other causes of acute respiratory infection, including influenza. If another cause of symptoms is found, then appropriate care for that illness is instituted, and if appropriate, isolation discontinued. If the [health department] agrees that the patient meets the criteria for a patient under investigation, specimens are obtained and sent to their lab in Albany.”

Northwell Health laboratories received federal approval over the weekend to perform tests, but by press time yesterday, Stony Brook University Hospital was still waiting for the arrival of testing equipment.

Mr. Bellone urged people not to panic, and to carefully monitor their health. According to the United States Centers for Disease Control, symptoms include fever, coughing, and shortness of breath, but those signs may not show up right away. Those who suspect they have been exposed should contact their physician. A county hotline, 311, has been set up for people who need more information.

In East Hampton, Bruce Bates, the town’s emergency preparedness coordinator, “has been in conversations about our plan here, should this turn into a major outbreak,” Supervisor Peter Van Scoyoc said last Thursday. On Tuesday, Mr. Bates addressed the board at its meeting in Montauk.

The town has “recommitted our custodial staff to be even more diligent about cleaning door handles, panic bars, and work surfaces” at town buildings, Mr. Bates said. “You can’t do it enough, especially with offices that have high traffic areas.” Visitors to town buildings don’t always use best practices with respect to hygiene, “putting our personnel at risk” if they are ill, he said.

Dr. Sharon Nachman, an infectious disease expert at Stony Brook, said the speed of the virus’s spread in Suffolk County “remains to be seen” and “every day is a moving target.” She said hand-washing is still the most effective way to contain it.

“The virus is most infectious about 24 to 48 hours before they become symptomatic. People are recognizing there’s a need to isolate and take precautions,” she said. “The next few days will tell us how well we’re doing when we see how many cases come up.”

Dr. Nachman echoed Mr. Bellone’s statement about not panicking. “Our children are picking up on the adults and families in their environments and are getting scared,” she said. “The take home message really has to be we need to be calm and reserved. Yes, this is a virus, yes, we’re looking for it, and panicking won’t help. I see people stocking up on food — I don’t think you’re going to need that right now.”

For public transportation, Suffolk County Legislator Bridget Fleming said yesterday that “sanitizing of buses has always been pretty robust, but they are stepping up their efforts. I am told that now there is more emphasis on disinfecting, and drivers have been instructed that if they do not feel well they should not come to work.”

“We are going to get through this together,” she said. “It’s causing some stress, but we’ve weathered crises before and I think we’re going to be okay.”

Diane Patrizio, East Hampton’s director of human services, told the town board Tuesday that the town’s transportation program for senior citizens is still providing rides to doctors’ offices, supermarkets, and other essential services. As meals are no longer being provided at the senior citizens center on Springs-Fireplace Road, her department is investigating how it can deliver meals to senior citizens at home, she said.

School districts and cultural institutions have announced the cancellation of many events, and educators across the region are preparing lesson plans to distribute remotely in case schools have to close suddenly, as has been the case in several UpIsland districts. School nurses have been joining conference calls with the County Health Department on a regular basis.

The Sag Harbor School District canceled all school-sponsored events and district participation in events outside of Sag Harbor on Tuesday evening and yesterday evening announced that it would close its schools entirely through March 22, effective today. The closures affect before and after-school activities, all athletic and extracurricular practices and competitions, and community use of the building. “There are no confirmed cases of COVID-19 within our schools,” the district stressed in a letter to parents.

The East Hampton School District had budgeted five snow days into this year’s calendar, which did not get used, so it could theoretically close for five days and not be impacted too drastically. “If it’s unsafe, we’re going to call it,” J.P. Foster, the school board president, said during Tuesday’s board meeting. The board has authorized Richard Burns, the superintendent, to take whatever urgent actions are necessary to protect the students and staff.

The Ross School said Tuesday it has begun sanitizing cafeteria surfaces every 20 minutes, and has suspended self-service food stations. Boarding houses will be receiving boxed food from the cafeteria to reduce the amount of time students are together in large groups. The school has begun staggering its bell schedule to limit the number of students changing classes in the hallways at the same time.

Jessica Fingleton, a Springs mother of three, told the Springs School Board this week she is extremely worried about her diabetic son, who had been recently hospitalized with the flu. “I obviously can’t keep them all in a bubble but at the same time things are getting closer,” she said. “We’ve gotten some info saying keep him away from large crowds, which is school, but at the same time I don’t want to keep him out of school. I’m sure my son is not the only child in the school who has immune system issues.”

Springs administrators asked her to work with her pediatrician. “Let your doctors decide whether you can come to school with the conditions you have,” said Debra Winter, the superintendent. “We have to make reasonable accommodations.”

In Montauk, where the family under quarantine has children at the public school, a community member volunteered to pick up the children’s schoolwork and deliver groceries to the family, according to the school nurse, Karen Theiss.

Many colleges and universities across the Northeast have moved to online classes and on Tuesday, the governor announced that SUNY and City University of New York schools will be following suit as of next Thursday.

Locally, cleaning supplies and hand sanitizer are hard to come by at grocery stores, and Gov. Cuomo is investigating price gouging, which is illegal, of basic supplies in some regions.

Robert Anthony and Mary Blake, two Springs residents who have set up a website tracking the virus locally, said many people have contacted them with questions.

“I think the awareness has been raised incredibly in the last two or three days,” Mr. Anthony said yesterday. “Now it’s hitting closer to home, and it’s going to get more and more visible. . . . The economic impact of this virus is huge in this town.”

With Reporting by Christopher Walsh

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