As the public health crisis escalated throughout New York, with Queens being the hardest-hit area in the state and nation, LIJ Forest Hills saw an uninterrupted and rapid surge of coronavirus cases until that volume reached its peak in mid-April.
Backed up by the resources of its parent system Northwell Health and the support of grateful neighborhood residents, the small community hospital presented a mighty response to the area’s battle with the virus.
“It was a very, very intense time,” said Susan Browning, executive director at LIJ Forest Hills. “Our health system is a national leader when it comes to emergency preparedness, so we had a lot of plans already in place before we even knew of something called COVID.”
Data updated by the city Department of Health on Sunday reveals the 11375 zip code had 1,448 confirmed cases of coronavirus.
In normal conditions, the hospital operates with 220 staffed adult beds across its medical, surgical and obstetrics (OB) units. At the height of the city’s outbreak, says Browning, LIJ Forest Hills was treating more than 270 patients hospitalized for confirmed and suspected COVID-19, not including the OB.
Under the leadership of Browning, as well as director of Emergency Dr. Teresa Amato and medicine chief of Infectious Disease Dr. Miriam Smith, LIJ Forest Hills was able to fulfill Governor Andrew Cuomo’s directive calling on hospitals across the state to increase their capacity by 50 percent.
With the number of critically ill patients peaking at triple the hospital’s average, LIJ Forest Hills accommodated the uptick by repurposing unused spaces such as surgical suites, recovery areas and a conference room in order to open five new surge units and two additional ICUs.
All of those supplementary spaces have since been closed and deep cleaned.
Northwell Health is the state’s largest healthcare system, comprising 23 hospitals in New York City, Long Island and Westchester County.
LIJ Forest Hills never faced a shortage of ventilators or PPE, thanks to a steady supply from its parent system. The hospital was also able to transfer patients to available beds in sister hospitals.
An influx of healthcare staff from both out of state and areas of the Northwell system less severely impacted by the outbreak helped to maintain manageable shifts for workers at LIJ Forest Hills.
“Within our health system as a whole, we’ve been prepared for the worst,” explained Browning. “And even though this was more than what most people could ever prepare for, we were working with such a good foundation that we never got to a point where our employees were in danger of working so hard that their safety would be at risk.”
On April 20, Northwell Health announced it would be recognizing the bravery of its frontline staff during COVID-19, including those at LIJ Forest Hills, with a lump-sum payment of up to $2,500 and one week of paid time off.
Though her job as the director of a Queens hospital during a pandemic that is devastating the borough is draining, Browning says she is equally energized by the resiliency and level of innovation exemplified by staff at LIJ Forest Hills.
“They came together as a team unlike anything I could have ever imagined,” she recalled. “I am unbelievably proud of the level of compassion and dedication the staff demonstrated to our patients and to our community.”
She pointed to the tremendous outpouring of appreciation from the community in the form of 7 p.m. “clap-outs,” food donations, and positive feedback on post-care surveys as indicators of her staff’s success.
The progressive downward trajectory of pandemic indicators throughout the city is reflected by the diminishing volume of coronavirus cases being treated at LIJ Forest Hills. According to hospital spokesperson Diane O’Donnell, the facility is currently housing 54 COVID-19 patients, 11 of which are located in the ICU.
Last week, LIJ Forest Hills reported a running total of 919 coronavirus patients discharged since the beginning of the outbreak.
Through the Forest Hills campus, residents have access to numerous research programs being implemented within the Northwell Health system. This involves offering the experimental antiviral therapy remdesivir to patients who meet existing criteria.
LIJ Forest Hills is also collecting convalescent plasma from qualifying former coronavirus patients that will go toward antibody research. Information on how to register as a plasma donor can be found at feinstein.northwell.edu.