While the hospital, nor the world, has seen anything like this pandemic before, the staff fell back on its training to “weather the storm,” according to Dr. Joseph Weisstuch, NYU Langone’s chief medical officer.
“NYU Langone Hospital-Brooklyn handled the COVID-19 pandemic because of its dedicated, hardworking and talented staff,” he said.
Weisstuch said the hospital also received help from providers of all disciplines who stepped up and volunteered to help care for the increase in patients. Ambulatory partners like the Family Health Centers at NYU Langone and the NYU Langone Faculty Group Practices also deployed additional staff for support.
To create an additional care environment separate from the general patient population, the Sunset Park-based hospital repurposed a nearby vacant former sub-acute facility into a respiratory screening and testing site.
Weisstuch said NYU Langone’s real estate development and facilities team converted nearly all of the hospital’s medicine and surgical units into environments for COVID-19 care.
“This has been the defining health event of the 21st century,” he said, “and our hospital went through a remarkable transformation to respond to it.
“The toll has been enormous,” Weisstuch added, “but we will come out of this stronger than ever.”
The hospital staff was tested both physically and emotionally, Weisstuch said, but with the backing of the Brooklyn community, the medical center was able to provide ongoing personal protective equipment (PPE) to keep health care workers safe.
“This may have been the biggest challenge in any of their careers” he said, “and they rose to the occasion as they always do to save hundreds of lives.”
Weisstuch said the “strength and compassion” of the Brooklyn community has never been more evident than during the pandemic.
The hospital received regular donations of food, shipments of PPE dropped off at the main entrance, and even thank you cards handcrafted by children from local early childhood centers and schools.
“Every single small deed of kindness has meant so much to our staff,” he said. “It’s been amazing and uplifting to see the community supporting us, cheering us on.”
As the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic appears to be over, the hospital is now encouraging community members who are suffering from any pains or conditions to come to the emergency department.
“Anything that would’ve brought you to the emergency department before should still bring you to an emergency department today,” said Dr. Ian Wittman, chief of emergency medicine.
Some common health scares that should cause someone to seek emergency care include new and significant chest pain or shortness of breath, severe abdominal pain, passing out that’s unexplained, broken bones or concerns for severe infections.
High fevers above 103 degrees for adults, or fevers that last multiple days, are also cause for concern. Wittman added that anyone with signs and symptoms of a heart attack or stroke should pursue emergency care immediately.
During the height of the pandemic, NYU Langone saw a “significant decrease” in the number of patients coming to the emergency department for heart attacks, strokes or appendicitis, Wittman said.
“It’s almost certain that the epidemiology has not changed that,” he said. “The prevalence of these conditions is just as common now and during COVID as it was before COVID.”
He attributed the decrease in patients to the fear people have about going to the hospital, which results in delaying their care. In New York City, Wittman said, people are still understandably afraid to even go outside.
While NYU Langone has now seen a rise in non-COVID volumes of patients, they have not yet returned to the same numbers before the pandemic started. Wittman said he believes that’s solely because people are weary of returning to the hospital
“I can’t say this enough times, the medical system is safe,” he said. “It’s set up to keep patients safe and to keep staff safe.”
The hospital has implemented a number of measures to accomplish this goal. All patients are given masks as they enter the emergency department. All staff are also wearing masks at all times, including enhanced PPE when dealing with possible COVID-19 patients.
Staff also shed their outer PPE, including gowns and gloves, when they leave bedside to prevent the spreading of the virus from one patient to another. The hospital has also significantly ramped up its cleaning protocol, Wittman said, with an increase in the frequency of cleanings.
“We’ve done a lot of upgrades to our facilities to make sure the air handling is at the absolute highest standard,” he said.
According to Wittman, most emergency departments in the country very aggressively changed their protocols to protect patients during COVID-19.
They increased the capacity of airborne isolation beds and the amount of oxygen to be delivered to patients throughout the hospital.
NYU Langone also set up a respiratory screening center, outside the main emergency department footprint, to treat and release patients who were presenting with COVID symptoms that were not life-threatening. That allowed the emergency department to use its main space for the sickest patients.
As the crisis went on, more and more of the hospital became packed with beds to care for COVID-19 patients.
“We had doctors and nurses and wards all over the hospital that were all working to care for these patients,” Wittman said. “I think they were doing a fantastic job of it.”
The chief of emergency medicine called the pandemic an “extremely challenging time.” The hospital saw young and healthy people get very sick, and many patients die. COVID-19 patients are still being admitted, some of whom are incredibly ill, Wittman said.
“On the other hand, we’ve also saved quite a lot of lives,” he said, “and feel very proud about the work that we did trying to care for the members of our community who developed this disease.”
Now that New York City has started the reopening process, Wittman’s message for the public is to still limit going outside to what’s necessary. When going outside, remember to wear a mask and maintain social distance, he said.
He said community members with emergency medical conditions should not hesitate to come to the hospital.
“We are ready and prepared to care for you,” Wittman said. “It’s what we do for a living.”