U.S. Representative Lee Zeldin gave Suffolk County residents a chance to talk directly with Dr. Bettina Fries, the chief of Stony Brook University’s Division of Infectious Diseases, on Sunday night, fielding a host of questions about the dangers posed by coronavirus, possible treatments and how long the epidemic might last.
The congressman’s office said that nearly 7,000 people listened in on the teleconference with Dr. Fries and Mr. Zeldin, who is on the bipartisan congressinal coronavirus task force, and about two dozen got to ask questions directly of Dr. Fries, who Mr. Zeldin touted as one of the top experts on infectious diseases in the country and called “Long Island’s own Dr. Fauci,” in reference to Dr. Anthony Fauci, an infectious disease expert who has been widely applauded for his candor and matter-of-fact manor while serving on the Trump Administration’s coronavirus task force.
Personal safety was on the minds of most of those who called into the teleconference.
Dr. Fries assured a woman named Josephine who called asking about concerns with the virus contaminating drinking water supplies — and wondered if that was why she had seen people buying huge amounts of bottled water at stores.
“There is no concern,” Dr. Fries said. “This is a virus. It can only live in a human cell.”
A woman who identified herself as Susan and said she was elderly, asked if it was safe for her to walk her dog outside.
“I think walking your dog by yourself is okay,” Dr. Fries told her, as long as she stays well away from other people. “If you are an elderly person or [have a compromised immune system] it is very important that you maintain distance to other people. People around you might not know that they are sick and could spread the disease to you without knowing it.”
Likewise, Dr. Fries told a woman named Diane, who is 70 and lives alone, that going to her daughter’s house for dinner and to visit her grandchildren could be dangerous. She likened it to the hospital restricting visitation for its older patients.
“I know it’s very hard for grandparents not to see their grandchildren and it’s very hard for our patients not to have visitors,” Dr. Fries said. “We think that young children under 20 might be unknowingly infected with the virus and that asymptomatic people greatly contribute to spreading the disease. That is why the recommendations are that people isolate themselves. It’s a protective measure to prevent the spread from people who are healthy to people who are not healthy and might have a bad outcome if they get the disease.”
Dr. Fries told listeners that the current projections show a steady increase in the number of cases in the U.S. for another four to five weeks, before the numbers would be expected to plateau.
“But we don’t know how this virus is going to behave, whether we’ll have a seasonal withdrawal and we’ll see less cases,” she said. “Right now, we have to prepare [ourselves] that until we have a vaccine or better treatment, we will have to practice this social distancing.”
The doctor said that Stony Brook University’s hospitals have been using a drug commonly used to treat malaria to help patients who have contracted COVID-19 since very early in the outbreak on Long Island. President Donald Trump recently touted the drug as having been very effective in fighting the coronavirus, but Dr. Fries said that healthcare professionals have actually found the benefits to be limited. And the drug must be administered carefully by doctors to account for side effects and potential negative reactions with other drugs a patient may be taking. She warned citizens that purchasing the drug to treat themselves would be dangerous.
She also warned that the COVID-19 virus is much more dangerous than the flu, especially for elderly people, who have been fairly well protected from flu by vaccinations and natural antibodies for strains of flu they experienced earlier in life. The death rate, she said, is believed to be 10 times that of the flu — and possibly higher — and that the rate of hospitalization for those infected with the virus is what poses a grave threat to the ability of the health care system to treat people who fall seriously ill.
“I will give you a simple calculation,” she told those listening in to the teleconference. “We have 1.5 million people in Suffolk. If only 1 percent of this population get the coronavirus, we’re talking about … 3,000 hospital admissions and 750 of those may need an intensive care bed. Before the pandemic, we had 2,300 beds and 10 percent of them are ICU beds.”
On Monday, Suffolk County Health Commissioner Dr. Gregson Pigott said that there are currently just over 600 open hospital beds countywide, and fewer than 70 ICU beds.
For the general population, Dr. Fries said, only about 20 percent of patients require hospitalization for a COVID-19 infection. But for those over the age of 80, the rate is close to 70 percent, she said.
One caller to Sunday’s teleconference said she was the mother of two nurses at Stony Brook University Hospital and said that they have told here there is not enough protective equipment for the staff.
Dr. Fries said that the hospital does currently have sufficient protective equipment for its staff but that supplies are dwindling and they are scrambling to secure more. She said the hospital has formed a task force that deals only with acquiring more protective equipment.
Mr. Zeldin said that it was the role of government to ensure that adequate supplies were being funneled to the medical workers.
“It is a failure on the part of government if these healthcare workers are not going to be getting, over the next few days, whatever they need to protect themselves,” he said.
Mr. Zeldin also said that along with the mounting health crisis, the cratering economy and how Congress will deal with it, is still being dealt with by congressional leaders.
A resident who said his name was Ken wondered if the drastic measures the country is taking to contain the spread of the virus weren’t causing more harm to the country than the virus itself.
“I don’t know which is going to be worse, trying to recover from an economic disaster or trying to recover from this epidemic here,” he said.
Dr. Fries pointed out that the disease has a death rate at least 10 times higher than the seasonal flu, which kills upwards of 40,000 Americans each year.
Mr. Zeldin addressed the financial side of the growing national crisis. He nodded to congressional leaders who are locked in negotiations over how to prop up the national economy during the virus crisis in hopes of getting it rolling quickly again when the health threat wanes.
He nodded to plans by congressional leaders to spend some $2 trillion on an economic support package. With forecasts saying the economy could lose near 25 percent of its total value in the next three months, he said it was critical for Congress to take some steps to stave off a more long-term collapse.
“There’s a lot of small businesses that will not survive without federal government help,” he said. “If you take the position that our country is already broke and we can’t do anything to help small businesses, they are going to turn in their keys. Their businesses will fold. Our downtowns will be destroyed and all those jobs will be lost.”
“My goal,” he added, “is an economy that still exists, that employees still have jobs and that these small business owners still have their doors open.”