Atlantic Health CEO: Prepare for two more years of COVID-19

Atlantic Health CEO Brian Gragnolati discusses the 'new normal' via livestream, May 19, 2020. Screen capture by Kevin Coughlin
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The novel coronavirus is not going anywhere.

Not anytime soon, anyway.  That’s according to Atlantic Health CEO Brian Gragnolati, who on Tuesday said the new normal will require learning to co-exist with COVID-19 for “the next couple of years.”

Gragnolati said his six hospitals have averted layoffs and continue to be safe places for anyone needing medical care, despite a 40-percent drop in revenues during the pandemic. And he warned of potential shortages of protective masks and gloves as businesses seek these items to comply with rules for reopening.

“I’m convinced the new normal is recognizing that we’re going to co-exist with COVID. And we’re going to be in that situation for the next couple of years,” said Gragnolati, wearing a mask during his live-streamed update.

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

“And I know that’s a tough thing to say. People will point to, ‘Oh there’s a vaccine that was just announced this weekend,’ or ‘there’s a new treatment that that might occur.’ And I pray to God that that’s the case.

“But from where I sit right now, in terms of caring for communities, having an organization like Atlantic, we have to plan for a new normal, which is co-existing with COVID.”

Gragnolati urged the public to continue frequent hand-washing, mask-wearing and avoidance of large gatherings. People should get flu shots, and maintain good overall health.

Without these measures, and a broad system of COVID-19 testing and contact-tracing to isolate infected individuals, “we’re going to see another surge. And that would be a very scary thing,” said Gragnolati.

He oversees Morristown Medical Center, the Gagnon Children’s Hospital, and the  Overlook(Summit), Chilton (Pequannock), Newton and Hackettstown medical centers.

On Tuesday, state Attorney General Gurbir S. Grewal announced expanded COVID testing authority for more than 18,000 licensed pharmacists across the state, to help meet Gov. Phil Murphy’s goal of doubling testing this month as part of his recovery plan to reopen New Jersey’s economy.

Also on Tuesday, the state health department issued guidelines for resuming elective surgeries at hospitals and ambulatory care centers.  Visitors only will be allowed in limited circumstances, such as labor and delivery, and pediatric patient surgery.

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Gragnolati, who serves on a panel advising the governor, asserted that Atlantic hospitals are safe because of enhanced ventilation systems and strict protocols for disinfecting wards and separating COVID- and non-COVID patients.

Nobody should delay seeking needed medical treatment, he said, reiterating a prior statement that Atlantic EMT’s making emergency calls have seen a doubling of the usual number of persons pronounced dead-at-the-scene — suggesting people have been putting off critical care for fear of the coronavirus.

While the hospitals are healthy environments for treatment, their economic health has suffered over the last two-and-a-half months, Gragnolati said.

Revenues are down 40 percent, as the system has absorbed costs of extra staff and PPE, he said.

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

Layoffs have been averted, the CEO said, because Atlantic entered the pandemic in good financial shape, and the network has received a federal loan for cash flow, as well as grants from the CARES Act.

More reimbursements for surge services are anticipated over the next two weeks, he said, but these payments have come “nowhere close” to covering actual costs of such care.

During the pandemic’s peak in mid-April, the system treated nearly 900 COVID  patients a day. About 30 percent of them were in intensive care, and a majority of those were on ventilators, he said. Now, just over 200 COVID patients are being treated, system-wide.

Atlantic hospitals transferred non-critical patients elsewhere to make room for the COVID cases, and avoided being overwhelmed.

“We threaded the needle,” Gragnolati said. “But we had some very scary times…We don’t want to be there again.”

He’s especially concerned about competing for personal protective gear as demand ramps up for the new normal.

“We have seen some ugly business practices out there on the supply chain,” Gragnolati said. “The notion of just-in-time delivery does not work.”

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