Affectionately referred to within the walls of Elmhurst Hospital as “Task Force Rona,” this group of administrators, doctors, nurses, medics, respiratory specialists and mental health professionals from all over the country were an invaluable part of the neighborhood’s response to the virus.
Surrounded by the neighborhoods of Elmhurst, Jackson Heights and Corona, Elmhurst Hospital was quickly inundated with COVID-19, earning a label as the “epicenter of the epicenter” of the pandemic. Hospital leadership was grateful to receive backup.
“Thank you for letting us know that no matter how dark our days may be, they will be followed by our finest hours,” said the hospital’s CEO Israel Rocha, addressing service members at a special ceremony last week.
The Defense Support of Civil Authorities, which allows the military to fulfill requests for assistance from civil authorities struggling to respond to emergencies, is typically implemented in natural disasters such as devastating hurricanes.
In the case of COVID-19, FEMA collaborated with the Department of Defense to ease stress on healthcare systems in states like New York that were overwhelmed by outbreaks.
When the enormity of the pandemic in the city became clear, an assignment was given to reservists who work as medical professionals in their civilian lives, leading to the creation of “Task Force Rona” at Elmhurst Hospital.
“I can’t imagine a time where we would have ever thought a city the size of New York, with the resources that we have, would have been in such a spot,” admitted Department of Emergency Management commissioner Deanne Criswell. “That not just one, but all of our public hospitals, as well as our private hospitals, were going to be in such need of additional support.”
According to Criswell, the pandemic situation at the end of March and early April reached a point where officials were uncertain as each day passed if the city would have enough staff, beds, PPE or equipment to keep up with hospitalizations.
Medical Director of the Simulation Center at Elmhurst Hospital and attending Emergency Medicine physician Dr. Suzanne Bentley says the 545-bed facility was able to triple its ICU capacity by redesigning areas across the hospital to accommodate critically ill patients.
On several occasions, new spaces were built to create safe places for staff to put on and remove PPE.
A part of the largest public health system in the nation, Elmhurst was also able to utilize the NYC Health+Hospitals network to transfer patients and obtain necessary resources.
Bentley described the fallout from the hospital’s experience with COVID-19 as “truly a nightmare,” one unlike anything the longstanding institution or its staff had ever fathomed.
“There are layers to the collective grief of the pandemic,” she said. “From the personal fears of becoming ill or getting our own families ill to the grief and worry for sick coworkers, to the devastating grief of losing members of our Elmhurst work family and losing members of many of our own families, to the helplessness of not knowing what to expect, to mourning the loss of our patients for whom we tried so, so hard to save and will never forget.”
In addition to internal wellness programs that help staff process the trauma of treating COVID-19, the hospital also received an outpouring of support from individuals, nonprofits and elected officials throughout the city.
Donations came in the form of PPE, equipment, food and iPads, which were used to help families stay connected with loved ones in the hospital whom they were unable to visit due to safety concerns.
For Bentley, one particularly meaningful show of support came from a local Girl Scout troop in her own neighborhood of Forest Hills. The troop collected more than 500 brand-new pillows and blankets, as well as hundreds of chargers, that were distributed to hospital staff.
Today, Elmhurst Hospital officials remain cautiously optimistic with COVID cases and ED volumes continuing to downtrend. The hospital encourages residents to seek the care they need through the safe in-person visits and telemedicine appointments.
As the city begins its track to reopening, Elmhurst Hospital remains on the front lines, eager to share its knowledge of novel coronavirus through ongoing research initiatives and drug trials.
“This crisis has unified our hospital further and brought public attention to the unique role we serve as a safety net hospital for the amazing community we serve,” said Bentley.
That message was made powerfully clear last week, as staff donning “Elmhurst Strong” caps, masks and T-shirts flocked outside the main entrance of the hospital to “clap out” homebound reservists, who leave Queens as the newest members of the Elmhurst family.