Northwell prioritizing comfort and safety for employees, patients in midst of pandemic

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Conference rooms and auditoriums have undergone interior remodeling to accommodate more patients who have tested positive for the coronavirus. (Photo courtesy of Northwell Health)

For the past month, health care workers throughout the nation have been put to the ultimate test by being on the frontlines in the battle against the coronavirus.

While adapting to an ever-changing healthcare landscape, Northwell Health’s Chief Public Relations Officer Terry Lynam said, the safety and comfort of the hospitals’ staff and patients remains paramount.

“The work that everyone does here, and throughout the nation does not go unnoticed or unappreciated,” Lynam said. “But the number one concern for us, aside from our patients, of course, is to prioritize the health of our employees.”

Of Northwell’s vast healthcare system consisting of 72,000 employees, Lynam said, 1,783 had tested positive for the coronavirus as of Wednesday.  Of that number, Lynam said, 80 percent have returned to work.

“When an employee tests positive, they go on a seven-day paid furlough,”  said. “They can return once they go three consecutive days without a fever or any other symptoms.”

North Shore University Hospital Executive Director Jon Sendach said implementing steps of reassurance for employees has gone a long way with the staff.

“If employees can come here and know that measures have been taken by the senior staff and that their health and well-being is prioritized, it shifts the mindset a bit,” Sendach said. “It’s all about taking steps of reassurance.”

Sendach said North Shore University Hospital’s employees have also been providing helpful feedback to executives to enhance their working conditions.

“We want up-to-the-minute feedback on what we are missing and what we could be doing more of,” Sendach said. “I send updates to my staff every Tuesday and Friday and remain open for any input that is provided.”

Lynam said it is no secret to how these employees feel after spending half of their day being surrounded by some portion of 3,357 people who carry a virus that has resulted in 100,000 deaths throughout the world.

“It takes an incredible toll on people physically, emotionally, and mentally,” Lynam said.

“We’re asking people to spend 12 hours here, go home, sleep on it, and repeat it all the next day. The day to day stresses they deal with are incredible,” Sendach said.

Sendach said he worked as a Queens-based street-level EMT on 9/11. According to him, this pandemic cannot be compared to that September day in New York.

“I think back to that, and it was definitely numbing for a few days,” Sendach said. “But you knew what it was after a few days. You knew it was a recovery. With this, it’s something completely different. The danger is right here inside the hospital.”

Though the demand for the procurement of personal protective equipment is high, Lynam said, Northwell’s hospitals remain adequately stocked, for now.

“We’re in pretty good shape with [personal protective equipment],” Lynam said. “We ask staffers to reuse the N95 masks for multiple days unless they have been soiled. Each day our hospitals collectively go through roughly 10,000 N95 masks. That gives you a sense of the demand right now.”

Like personal protective equipment, the supply and demand for ventilators throughout the nation puts New York hospitals in a difficult position.

While the state continues to receive donations from other government entities throughout the world, the ingenuity of Northwell’s resources has also been put to the test.

According to Lynam, Northwell had converted 132 BiPAP machines, commonly used for sleep apnea, into ventilators. Lynam said 3-D printers have been used to create components to complete the machines’ transformation.

“Right now, three-quarters of Northwell’s ventilators are currently being used, which includes the 132 converted BiPAP machines,” Lynam said. “There are still 238 more BiPAP machines that are available to be converted if need be.”

“The use of this technology expands our capacity to treat a higher number of patients than we previously thought possible,” Long Island Jewish Medical Center Executive Director Michael Goldberg said. “Our team is phenomenal at coming up with solutions when there does not seem to be one.”

When a patient is put on a ventilator, Lynam said, they require a higher level of care, which includes an increase in staffing.  One extra layer of monitoring the 3,357 patients currently admitted throughout Northwell’s hospitals, is a remote location in Syosset that tracks patients’ vitals and up-to-the-minute status.

“With the remote center in Syosset, if an ICU patient’s conditions or vitals turn worse, we are able to flag it to staff within those units so they can quickly tend to them,” Lynam said. “It’s just an additional layer of safety that is in place for our patients and staff.”

It’s not just machines that have been converted and transformed within the walls of Northwell’s hospitals. Lynam said conference rooms and auditoriums have undergone re-modeling to increase the capacity for hospital beds in North Shore University Hospital.

“Employees will come in one day and be ready to work, but then they have to quickly adapt when we tell them they are setting up hospital beds in the conference room,” Sendach said. “What’s so unique about these hospitals is how everyone can adapt to a new role or responsibility so quickly.”

Despite 12-hour shifts and being surrounded by people carrying an invisible threat that has wiped out hundreds of thousands of lives, Northwell’s employees have stepped up to the challenge.

“These employees come in every day, and whatever we ask them to do, they respond with ‘what do you mean? This is what we do,” Sendach said.

As of Friday morning, Lynam said, a total of 431 people who tested positive for the coronavirus had been discharged from Northwell ICUs.  As of Monday, he said, the number of discharges was 290.

“The numbers are still high, no doubt,” Lynam said. “The hospitals remain incredibly busy, but overall the numbers seem to be plateauing.”

According to Goldberg, every time and LIJ patient has been discharged, a chime is sounded out over the hospital’s PA system. Every time a breathing tube is removed, the Beatles’ “Here Comes the Sun” plays for everyone to hear, Goldberg said.

“It’s a powerful moment for our patients and our staff members,” Goldberg said. “We celebrate wins here, and we’re keeping people focused on the positives.”

Lynam touted the Long Island community’s efforts regarding donations, words of encouragement, and public displays of attention (from afar).

“The outpouring of communal support everyone has received has helped the frontline caregivers persevere throughout all of this,” Lynam said. “All of the donations and kind words, and showing their support by cheering us on has really helped people push through this.”

“The culture of Northwell is reflected by its’ employees,” Goldberg said. “There’s such a vast majority of people who volunteer without us asking them to.  The communal outreach to their efforts has played a pivotal role in that as well.”

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