Area School Districts, Governments Brace For COVID-19 Outbreak

Dr. George Dempsey and the staff of East Hampton Family Medicine. michael wright

Now that COVID-19 has made its way to Suffolk County, local schools, hospitals and organizations have been going the extra mile to try to stop it from spreading even further.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that, as of Monday, there were a total of 423 confirmed cases of the virus across the nation, and a total of 19 deaths. The CDC noted that 72 of the 423 cases were believed to be travel-related infections, and 29 were contracted person-to-person.

The New York State Department of Health reported a total of 173 cases throughout the state as of Tuesday morning, with one in Suffolk County — which was not a travel-related transmission — and 19 in Nassau County.

However, Wednesday morning Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone announced the confirmation of five additional positive cases of the virus– a total of six in the county.
The Department of Health said that symptoms of the 2019 novel coronavirus include cough, fever, difficulty breathing and pneumonia. These symptoms can appear in as little as two days or up to 14 days after exposure to the virus.

The Department of Health suggests that coronavirus is spread from person to person through coughing.

The CDC noted that the 2019 novel coronavirus is identified as an outbreak of respiratory illness first detected in Wuhan, China. Early cases of the virus reported contact with seafood and live animal markets in China — suggesting an animal source for the outbreak.

At present, there is no vaccine to prevent coronavirus. However, the Department of Health recommends washing hands often, avoiding close contact with sick people, staying home if you’re sick, covering your cough or sneeze with a disposable tissue, and disinfecting frequently touched surfaces often.

Several school districts in Nassau County have begun closing their doors, including Locust Valley and Glen Cove. Although none have begun closing in Suffolk County, school districts here have been taking extra steps to prevent the spread of the virus.

Classes, so far, remain in session, but some school trips have been canceled.

Southampton Superintendent of Schools Dr. Nicholas Dyno and Southampton High School School Nurse Colby Salzano.

Southampton Superintendent of Schools Dr. Nicholas Dyno said that the janitorial staff has been enhancing the cleaning routines in the district’s schools. He said last week he sent an email to the staff to begin preparing lesson plans in case the district decided to begin teaching remotely. A letter was sent to parents in both English and Spanish breaking down the precautions the schools are taking.

“We had two trips planned for the spring, one to Spain and one to Italy. We decided to reschedule those trips for next spring. Those who planned on going to Italy can choose to travel in the fall or next spring,” said Dr. Dyno.

Springs School Principal Eric Casale said administrators had taken part in a conference call with New York State health officials on Monday and are preparing a plan in the event that school needs to be closed. They said it was too early to cancel field trips but added that they would ask parents and staff members to voluntarily tell them where they would be traveling on upcoming breaks.

Parent Jessica Fingleton told the Springs School Board at a meeting this week that she was concerned because her son has diabetes and she worried about him being exposed to the virus and wanted to know if the district would inform parents if any children were sick. Mr. Casale said the district could not disclose a student’s health information, but he urged her to remain in touch with him if she had any concerns.

Westhampton Beach School Superintendent Michael Radday said that the district is closely monitoring the situation and is following guidance from the CDC, state officials, the Suffolk County Health Department and the New York State Education Department.

“The district has infectious disease protocols in place, and has been taking steps, such as cleaning and disinfecting throughout our schools, to minimize the spread of viruses and a variety of other illnesses,” Mr. Radday said. “This enhanced cleaning has been in place for several weeks. The health and safety of our students and staff is our highest priority. We will continue to work with federal, state and local public health resources in dealing with this evolving situation.”

Hampton Bays School Superintendent Lars Clemensen said that the district has employed enhanced cleaning protocols in accordance with state guidelines.

“We are in daily communication with county school superintendents as we respond to new guidance and information from the Department of Health,” Mr. Clemensen said. “The most immediate change that was made was to postpone our grade eight class trip to Washington, D.C. The trip was scheduled to leave Thursday morning. However, due to the rapidly changing information from various levels of the government and CDC guidance that recommends avoiding non-essential travel to large, densely-populated areas, we postponed the trip to June.”

Sag Harbor School District Athletic Director Eric Bramoff announced on Wednesday that the district has ended the middle school winter sports season early, affecting approximately 40 athletes who compete in girls basketball, boys volleyball and wrestling. He said no Sag Harbor athletes at the junior varsity and varsity levels will compete in games until after April 3.

“From an athletic standpoint, we’re proceeding that Sag Harbor will not be sending students to contests of any kind until April 3,” Mr. Bramoff said. “And effective today, we are ending the middle school winter sports seasons. At the varsity and junior varsity level, will make every effort to make up the contests that we miss. Unfortunately, our shared sports athletes will not be able to participate if those games are held.”

Stony Brook University announced this week that all classes will be held online after spring break, beginning on Monday, March 23, until the end of the Spring 2020 semester.
Several local groups outside of the education community have begun to take extra precautions as well.

The Town of East Hampton has temporarily suspended all senior citizen programs at the East Hampton Town Senior Center and at the Montauk Playhouse.

The Suffolk County sheriff’s office has suspended all visits to inmates.

The Diocese of Rockville Centre has also issued a press release that includes the proper measures all parish churches should be taking. Some of those include temporarily stopping the distribution of wine during services to anyone but the clergy, stopping the exchange of the “sign of peace” in any form, and suggesting parishioners stay home from services if they are feeling ill.

U.S. Representative Lee Zeldin has made a series of statements regarding the coronavirus throughout the last week, as it is now spread throughout the state.

The House of Representatives approved $7.8 billion in funding for coronavirus and $490 million for temporary expansion of Medicare telemedicine services — referred to as the Coronavirus Preparedness and Response Supplemental Appropriations Act.

“The coronavirus outbreak is a quickly evolving situation, and now is not the time to play politics,” Mr. Zeldin said in a press release. “Everyone must work together to contain and eradicate this new disease. This critical legislation provides a comprehensive, whole-government, coordinated response to prevent, prepare and respond to this outbreak, jump-start the development and availability of a vaccine, treatments and diagnostics, and expand Medicare telemedicine services, so seniors, who are disproportionately vulnerable, have access to the treatment they need. I look forward to continuing to work closely with those at every level of government to respond to this developing situation.”

This new legislation includes over $4 billion to make tests for the virus more readily available, as well as vaccine development, $2.2 billion for the CDC to respond to the virus as it evolves more effectively, and $20 million to administer disaster assistance loans for small businesses impacted by the virus.

“While we continue to do all that we can to avoid a widespread outbreak, we are asking the public to do the same. If you are sick, stay home and contact your primary care physician to avoid spreading any illness to others,” Suffolk County Legislator Bridget Fleming said in response to the virus.

Since the news spread that the coronavirus has made its way east to New York, items such as hand sanitizer, face masks and other essentials for disease prevention have become rather difficult to get hold of. Many companies have begun raising their prices in response to the high demand.

Governor Andrew Cuomo addressed the issue at a press conference last week after declaring a state of emergency on Saturday, March 7. He said that the price gouging for these particular items is most egregious and introduced a plan to distribute free hand sanitizer offered by the state.

“This is a superior product to products now on the market,” he said. “The CDC, among other organizations, recommends 60 percent alcohol content — this product is 75 percent alcohol.”

He also announced last week that the Wadsworth Center, the research-intensive public health laboratory housed within the State Department of Health, is partnering with hospitals to expand surge testing capacity to 1,000 tests per day statewide for the virus.

The governor noted that the state will be issuing new cleaning protocols for schools and improving the cleaning regimens in the public transit systems.

“This isn’t our first rodeo — we are fully coordinated, we are fully mobilized, and we are fully prepared to deal with the situation as it develops,” he said.

Last week, New York Attorney General Letitia James issued a cease-and-desist order to any company that is marketing a product as a treatment for coronavirus.

“As we experience more cases of coronavirus, it is imperative that New Yorkers remain calm but stay vigilant,” Ms. James said. “In addition to being mindful about our health, we must also beware of unscrupulous actors who attempt to take advantage of this fear and anxiety to scam or deceive consumers. I encourage anyone who believes they are the victim of a scam or predatory action to contact my office and file a complaint.”

Amy Loeb, RN, deputy executive director of Peconic Bay Medical Center. RACHEL VALDESPINO

Amy Loeb, a registered nurse and the deputy executive director of Peconic Bay Medical Center in Riverhead, said that the hospital is picking up screening practices as the virus continues to evolve. The hospital is currently screening every individual who enters the building, asking them about their travel within the past few weeks and whether they are experiencing any symptoms of the virus.

“This protects patients, employees and the community,” Ms. Loeb said. “We are remaining hyper-vigilant. We’ve been testing and ensuring that our isolation rooms are appropriate, keeping a watch of our supplies inventory and are very responsible with watching what’s going on.”

The hospital has hand sanitizer and face masks at the security desk, where guests are screened.

East Hampton Town Supervisor Peter Van Scoyoc said that the town is implementing a variety of new health safety protocols and discussing more drastic steps, were the virus to spread significantly in the community.

On Tuesday morning, Mr. Van Scoyoc’s office announced that it was suspending all of its organized activities for senior citizens. The town has increased the number of hand sanitizer dispensers throughout town offices and is having public spaces cleaned and sanitized regularly.

For now, all town offices are to remain open for public business as usual, but Mr. Van Scoyoc said board members and staff have discussed which departments could quickly be shifted to offering services by phone or online.

He said the Town Board has also considered closing its meetings to the public and relying on televising or streaming its meetings live online and allowing members of the public to call or email questions and comments, if concerns about community spread become more significant.

Dr. George Dempsey of the East Hampton Healthcare Foundation told the board on Thursday evening that he sees the issue of the virus spreading in the community more as a matter of when, not if.

“It is going to happen, I think we all know that,” he said last Thursday evening, before the first case of the virus had been identified in Suffolk County. “And it is going to happen very rapidly. I think we should be planning now and getting prepared in a rational way.”

Dr. Dempsey, a family practice physician, urged the Town Board and the East Hampton community to take aggressive steps to protect the elderly and frail by helping them to avoid contact with the general public whenever possible.

“I would suggest keeping the elderly at home and find a system to support them, to get food for them and get their medicines for them so they don’t have to be out and about,” Dr. Dempsey told the Town Board last week.

The Healthcare Foundation itself is taking steps to protect its staff and patients, posting a nurse at the door to the building to ask any visitors if they have traveled abroad or are suffering from fever, sore throat or cough, before they enter the building.

“It makes no sense to have people who are sick come in and make other people sick,” Dr. Dempsey explained. “There’s really nothing we can do for them. It’s bed rest, or if you are really sick, you need to go to the hospital.”

Hand sanitizers sit on every table and counter in the Healthcare Foundation. “That stuff is like gold,” a nurse commented.

East Quogue resident and member of the Long Island East Ski Club Debra Difrancesco was supposed to leave last Tuesday to Italy for the club’s trip — something she’s actively been a part of for over two decades.

“This is unprecedented — this has never happened before,” Ms. Difrancesco said. “We decided to cancel it as a group before it spread even further. It’s not worth risking our lives or being quarantined.”

She said it took the travel industry about five days to catch up with what she knew was happening. Luckily, her travel agent was able to get her and the other ski club members almost full credit to go on the trip next year.

“It’s going to get worse before it gets better. My travel agent couldn’t believe that we had the foresight that we did,” she said.

Ms. Difrancesco also works in the home care department of Northwell Health in Riverhead.

“We’re the ones in the field right in people’s homes, and we’re doing all we can to keep people safe,” she explained. “I think this is making people think twice about the virus. The world has got to come together on this.”