Atlantic Health CEO: ‘We are in a forest fire right now’; cites concerns for Morristown

Atlantic CEO Brian Gragnolati speaks at announcement of Breakthrough Oncology Generator at Morristown Medical Center, Oct. 3, 2018. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Atlantic CEO Brian Gragnolati, speaking at an event in 2018. . Photo by Kevin Coughlin


The peak may come next week.

“We are in the forest fire right now, and we don’t have a lot of tools to address the fire,” said Brian Gragnolati, CEO of the Atlantic Health System.

During a half-hour webcast on Tuesday, Gragnolati said Morristown Medical Center and the other hospitals in the network have a critical need for protective gear as they brace for an imminent surge of coronavirus patients.

“There is not enough PPE in the world to take care of this pandemic,” he said, referring to N95 masks and other personal protective equipment.

‘Triage tent’ outside Morristown Medical Center, March 14, 2020. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

Despite glimmers of encouraging news–some patients are coming off ventilators, and social distancing may be starting to “flatten the curve” of new infections–Gragnolati stressed that nobody can ease up on social distancing.

“Make no mistake, this is a very difficult virus,” he said, noting he is particularly concerned that flareups could occur in Morristown’s under-served neighborhoods, where language issues and other disparities could pose “unique challenges.”

Gragnolati said he has spoken with the mayor’s office about “how we look at a block by block level” to encourage social distancing.


Since March 4, some 8,000 people have been tested by Atlantic Health for COVID-19; 44 percent of them have been positive for the disease, Gragnolati said.

Gragnolati said the system’s emergency departments have been flooded with more than 4,400 patients, and some 1,500 coronavirus patients have been admitted to its hospitals, which include the Overlook(Summit), Chilton (Pequannock), Newton and Hackettstown medical centers.

Health care worker administers drive-through coronavirus test at Atlantic Health Center facility in Morris Township, March 18, 2020. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

To make room for coronavirus patients, Atlantic hospitals have sent more than 600 patients home, or to nursing homes or other facilities, he said.

Morristown Medical Center last week reopened a Mount Kemble Avenue rehab center that it had closed last summer; at least one floor there is serving as a hospice.

One bright spot: COVID-19 patients on ventilators– typically on them for 12- to 20 days–are starting to recover sufficiently to come off the machines. The first was Saturday night at Chilton; several more have followed in Morristown. These are joyful events on the wards.

“Everyone cheers,” said Gragnolati, who acknowledged that social distancing rules are preventing him–just like families of patients–from entering these facilities.

Numbers suggest the pandemic may be reaching a plateau in our area, he said.  Infection rates had been doubling every three or four days; now the rate is in the mid-single digits, he said.

Atlantic Health hospitals still need N95 masks and other personal protective equipment (PPE), Gragnolati said, explaining that a nurse can go through 20 changes of gear a day, per patient.

That can include gloves, gowns, googles, shields and footwear.


A pair of ambulances outside the former Atlantic Rehabilitation Institute on Mt. Kemble Avenue on Thursday. The facility, which shut down in-patient services in August 2019, reopened this week to treat COVID-19 patients. April 2, 2020. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

Anticipating the scale of the situation was hindered in February, he said, by the scarcity of test kits and labs. Initially, everything was funneled through the state and the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“The testing piece has gotten better. But it’s not where we need to be,” he said.

Right now, Atlantic’s medical teams must assume any new patients have the virus.  Wider testing would give hospitals more accurate estimates of likely COVID-19 patients, which in turn would better help them manage their PPE resources.

After the anticipated coronavirus surge, testing will be critical for determining the rate of spread, to identify flareups and to indicate how many people had the virus and now may be immune, he said.

Gragnolati praised the “amazing job” of Atlantic’s employees and hospital presidents, noting the pandemic has taken an emotional toll on them.

Medicine is a team endeavor, he said, and social distancing and isolation make it especially tough to “debrief” after a tough shift.  A former EMT, Gragnolati recalled hugs and tears after hard days on that job.

Morristown staff members were able to work through the sadness of the 2018 Mt. Olive school bus crash–which killed a 5th grader and a teacher, and injured dozens of children–because they are trained to treat trauma victims, and such events are managed in a systematic way, he said.

“This virus you can’t compartmentalize,” Gragnolati said. “It’s around you in the community, it’s around your family, you’re worried about getting it yourself. You can’t get away from it. The news is in your face.”

The CEO said he finds refuge in the Food Channel every now and then. It makes sense. He has a lot on his plate right now.


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