Pictured Above: Stony Brook Southampton Hospital began setting up a forward triage area at its Parrish Memorial Hall on Friday, in anticipation of receiving more coronavirus patients.
If we didn’t know it already, it became undeniable this week that the East End is not isolated from the rest of the world, and our aging residents are now at the front lines of the pandemic that has taken over the news.
We’ve been providing continuously updated coverage of the latest local information regarding the coronavirus throughout the past week, and we will continue to do so in the weeks ahead.
This weekend, we wanted to take a deep breath, recap the week that was, and, more importantly, help our readers navigate the truly uncharted waters we will continue to face in the near future.
Our world changed last Sunday, when Suffolk County first confirmed a case of the coronavirus, an employee of the Greenport Harbor Brewery in Peconic who sought medical care at Stony Brook Eastern Long Island Hospital in Greenport and was taken to Stony Brook Southampton Hospital, where he is recovering.
In the days since, ten more patients have been confirmed in Southold Town, including three employees of Peconic Landing, a retirement community with more than 450 residents and more than 300 employees that is one of the biggest employers in Southold Town.
Southold Town Supervisor Scott Russell, who declared a State of Emergency on Thursday, said the town is expecting more people to test positive. Update: Mr. Russell confirmed Sunday morning that there are now 18 positive cases of coronavirus in Southold Town.
The elderly are most susceptible to the ravages of this respiratory virus, which spreads rapidly in close quarters, prompting New York State to ban visitors to nursing homes. Peconic Landing barred visitors earlier this week and other East End nursing homes have followed suit.
Southold Town, with more than 23 percent of its population over the age of 65, is a prime example of a community where public health experts would not want to see such a virus spread.
Hospitals Brace for Patients
By the end of the week, local hospitals had circled the wagons, with Stony Brook Southampton Hospital setting up a forward triage area for an expected influx of coronavirus patients in its Parrish Memorial Hall and limiting visitors to the hospital.
Stony Brook Eastern Long Island Hospital in Greenport is barring all visitors, except for parents and caregivers of disabled and pediatric patients in its emergency room.
Peconic Bay Medical Center in Riverhead is also preparing to use a space within its new Corey Critical Care Pavilion as a forward triage area for potential coronavirus patients.
PBMC also revised its visitor policy Friday, barring visitors in many areas of the hospital, barring visitors experiencing respiratory symptoms like fevers, coughs or difficulty breathing, and shortening visitor hours to noon to 4 p.m. All visitors will now be required to wear a face mask. The hospital said these restrictions may change.
A growing number East End events have beeen cancelled due to concerns about the possible spread of the new coronavirus at large gatherings, and local arts and cultural institutions are shutting down for some time. We’re updating our list regularly.
Seeking Medical Care
The criteria for eligibility for coronavirus testing is changing daily, and we expect it to change further as New York State ramps up testing ability throughout the week.
Northwell Health’s testing lab in Lake Success in Nassau County announced Wednesday that it had begun semi-automated testing for the coronavirus after its emergency use authorization request to the U.S. Food and Drug was approved Tuesday night. The lab expected to be able to conduct several hundred tests per day by the end of this past week, according to the lab’s Executive Director, Dr. Dwayne Breining.
“The lab is seeking FDA approval to fully automate the process, which would give it the capability to process more than 1,000 tests daily,” he added.
Northwell Health’s GoHealth urgent care clinics, including clinics in Bridgehampton, Hampton Bays and Riverhead, sent a March 10 email to patients who’d used their services in the past that coronavirus testing is now available in all their centers, but they cautioned that “given the still limited testing capacity at this time, we are reserving the COVID-19 test for patients who are at the highest risk. Once the lab automates the process, it will have the capability to process hundreds and eventually thousands of tests daily.”
As of Friday, residents who attempted to receive care at GoHealth clinics told The Beacon they would not yet be tested unless they had been to a country listed by the CDC as a coronavirus hot spot or been in contact with someone locally who had been confirmed to have the virus.
We have not yet heard back from Northwell Health spokespeople on when that guidance will change, but we will provide updates when we do.
At a press conference earlier this week, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said standards for testing are being set by the New York State Department of Health and are the same at all testing facilities, so that residents don’t try to ‘shop around’ for testing, potentially exposing health care workers and the community to the disease.
Stony Brook Southampton Hospital has also issued guidance for patients seeking coronavirus screening.
“Anyone who the clinician believes is a suspected case of COVID-19 is immediately placed on respiratory isolation, and infection control and the Department of Health is contacted,” according to the hospital. “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 DOH agrees that the patient meets the criteria for a patient under investigation [for coronavirus], specimens are obtained and sent to their lab in Albany. The current turnover time is variable, and the patient remains on isolation until the results return from their lab. Isolation is strictly enforced in a negative pressure room, preventing air from recirculating into the main hospital. All personnel entering the room use full PPE [Personal Protective Equipment] including N95 respirators. The CDC has guidelines to limit staff exposure to these potentially infected COVID-19 patients before test results are available.”
Chaos Or A Civil Society?
While hospitals are preparing to treat the public, massive panic buying has been reported by residents across the East End, with many South Fork residents taking to Facebook to post photos of long lines and empty shelves that had once stocked toilet paper, water and hand sanitizer in the King Kullen in Bridgehampton, worried that an influx of New Yorkers escaping the city for their summer houses would overwhelm local resources.
Target in Riverhead was filled to the brim with anxious customers and employees unloading u-boats and pallets of cleaning supplies and food Friday morning, as parents of young children filled their carts and admonished their kids to stop touching their faces to avoid spreading germs.
While bottled water is in short supply, the Suffolk County Water Authority issued a statement to its customers late Friday that “your water service will not be interrupted, nor will the quality of your water be impacted as a result of the COVID-19 outbreak. According to the CDC, the COVID-19 virus is not waterborne, and all SCWA water is already treated with chlorine for disinfection purposes.”
North Fork Suffolk County Legislator Al Krupski, in response to concerns from local businesses, also said Friday that he’s been assured by Suffolk County Health Commissioner Dr. Gregson Pigott “that COVID-19 is not a food-borne virus.”
Riverhead School employees among the crowd shopping at Target Friday shared what little information they had on whether the district’s schools would be open in the week ahead — the district had cancelled all classes on Friday and closed its buildings over the weekend “for additional cleaning of all buildings.” According to the school, “we will make a decision over the weekend about how to proceed for next week. There are currently no confirmed cases of coronavirus within our schools.”
The Mattituck-Cutchogue, Southold, New Suffolk and Greenport school districts have decided to close for the upcoming week, through March 20. All school athletic events in Suffolk County are suspended through April 3. The Oysterponds school is banning visitors, accepting deliveries outside the school and asking parents to wait outside the school to pick up their children.
Mattituck-Cutchogue School District Superintendent Jill Gierasch, in a letter to parents Friday, hinted that the closure could last longer, saying that “on Friday, March 20, the district will begin delivering instruction through an online platform for grades 5-12. Instructional packets for grades K-6 have also been prepared. More information will follow as to how to access these materials no later than Tuesday, March 17.”
Flatten the Curve
Health professionals are urging the public to avoid gathering in large groups, in an effort to slow the spread of the virus, to keep hospitals from being overwhelmed by a surge of patients and to “flatten the curve” of contagion.
New York Governor Andrew banned public gatherings of crowds of 500 people or more on Thursday, effectively putting a stop to the entire St. Patrick’s Day parade season.
East Enders are going further than the state has required.
Government business here is shutting down, with the towns of Southold, Riverhead and East Hampton all declaring states of emergency, cancelling meetings, or, in the case of East Hampton, holding some meetings without the public present, cancelling public hearings, and allowing public comment by email.
Cultural institutions, theaters, libraries, many churches and events have been closed or cancelled in the upcoming weeks, but nature preserves have expanded their hours. The Quogue Wildlife Refuge announced Friday that trails will remain open from sunrise to sunset, though the nature center is closed. Mashomack Preserve on Shelter Island is expanding its hours through April 20 from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., seven days a week.
“Time in nature helps us decompress. With all the fast-paced news of this week, we invite you and your family to take a stroll through the woods, enjoy the sights and sounds of spring, and relax,” said a Friday email to supporters of Mashomack Preserve. “Whether you’re looking to entertain the kids, get some exercise, or just escape for a little bit, we’re here for you.”
We are constantly updating our cancellation listings.
For business owners worrying about the economic hit they may take as a result of the coronavirus, the Small Business Administration has prepared a guide for seeking disaster funding in the wake of the national State of Emergency declared Friday.
Local volunteer fire departments have also limited access to their firehouses to members, cancelled non-essential drills and meetings, and asked members to not respond to calls if they feel sick.
Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone said Friday that police officers will no longer accompany EMS providers, many of whom are volunteers, into homes, in order to limit first responders’ contact with potential patients.
On Sunday afternoon, Mr. Bellone ordered all Suffolk County Schools be closed from Monday, March 16 through Friday, March 27.
Where Do We Go From Here?
There’s still a lot we don’t know about how the coronavirus will affect the East End, and as of the afternoon of March 14, much of that confusion is due to the lack of testing for the virus. We are actively working to get the latest information on local testing capabilities and will pass that on to our readers.
We don’t know how supply chains will hold up either. Much of that depends on members of the public not hoarding food or supplies. Most public health experts are recommending citizens have two weeks worth of food on-hand in order to weather a potential two-week precautionary quarantine, or a two-week isolation if you test positive for COVID-19.
We urge you all to remember that your neighbors are as concerned as you are, and we will not get through this crisis by turning on one another.
We will be providing continuously updated information about the local coronavirus situation in the weeks ahead. Please feel free to share any information you believe will be of assistance to the community by emailing us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
A growing number East End events have be cancelled and arts and cultural institutions have been closed due to concerns about the possible spread of the new coronavirus at large gatherings. We’re updating our list regularly.