Gabriela Bhaskar / The New York Times

Along with a rise in Cornell cases, Tompkins County is also looking at another spike, with a recent announcement attributing 30 new cases to three clusters.

May 12, 2020

An Ithaca Doctor’s Experience on the Front Lines of the COVID-19 Pandemic

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After spending a month treating patients at New York City hospitals, the 60 Cayuga Medical Center doctors, nurses and staff who left Ithaca with great fanfare have returned.

The Sun spoke with Dr. LouAnne Giangreco, the clinicians’ team leader, to discuss her experience on the front lines at the epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic in the U.S.

“We wanted to be able to relieve our colleagues downstate,” Giangreco said, adding that the volume of COVID-19 cases in Ithaca had “decreased significantly,” allowing the healthcare workers to answer Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s (D-N.Y) nationwide call for aid.

The clinicians were split between Weill Cornell Medical and New York Presbyterian Hospital in lower Manhattan, where the vast majority of the patients they treated had COVID-19 — and many were in critical condition.

Giangreco described the scene at the hospital intensive care units as alarming.

“[The patients] were on multiple IV drips, required a lot of ventilator support as well and were on ventilators for a long period of time. [It] was pretty remarkable,” she said.

The clinicians managed patients facing many different significant COVID-19 complications such as kidney failure that resulted in a need for dialysis treatment and clotting or bleeding disorders, according to Giangreco.

Due to the long period of time that many were on ventilators, some patients needed tracheostomies — a surgical procedure in which hole is made in the front of the neck and into the windpipe to support longer-term breathing. Tracheostomies typically provide better breathing support than ventilators.

Over the course of the month, more and more patients were transferred out of the intensive care unit to rehabilitation floors. However, this was just the beginning of a long recovery process.

“These are patients who had been sedated and paralyzed with medications for a long period of time, so there are now a notable number of patients that require extensive therapy [to recover],” Giangreco said.

The clinicians were also concerned with their own exposure to the virus. To mitigate the risk of becoming infected with COVID-19, Cayuga Medical staff were provided with personal protective equipment such as N95 masks, hair covers, face shields and gowns.

New York Presbyterian, which oversees both New York City hospitals, provided the staff with scrubs to be laundered onsite so that they could wear their street clothes back to a hotel that temporarily housed the clinicians.

“We were very fortunate that we had great support down at NYP in terms of employee health. If anybody had any concerns, there was a COVID hotline to be able to call and to be tested,” Giangreco said.

All staff were tested for COVID-19 upon their arrival to Ithaca and the Taughannock Inn has donated rooms for the clinicians who wish to be isolated for two weeks after their return.

In the case that an employee did test positive, Giangreco said that Cayuga Medical followed the best practices of the New York State Department of Health, keeping people out of work and monitoring symptoms and carefully determining when it was safe for the individual to return to work.

Giangreco did not confirm whether any staff members tested positive for COVID-19 during their time working in New York Presbyterian and did not share the number of people who chose to isolate upon returning to Ithaca. However, Giangreco confirmed that no one required hospitalization or extensive medical care.

“We’ve always known that New Yorkers have a strong fortitude,” said New York State Sen. Tom O’Mara (R-Elmira) at the send-off ceremony on April 8. “We will prevail and we will succeed because we are New York strong.”