By Dustin Brown
Amid concern over the possibility of additional terrorist assaults hitting New York, hospital and airport officials outlined their plans for coping with threats and large-scale emergencies to 150 Astoria residents last week at a town meeting.
“We’re getting daily a lot of information thrown at us by watching news or reading the papers,” said state Assemblyman Michael Gianaris (D-Astoria), who helped to moderate the forum at last Thursday’s monthly meeting of the United Community Civic Association, which is run by local activist Rose Marie Poveromo.
“To get somebody to speak to the community directly about some of the immediate effects on our neighborhood and to have the opportunity to have specific questions answered was very helpful,” he said.
Dr. Arthur Gualtieri, the medical director of Mt. Sinai Hospital of Queens on 30th Avenue in Astoria, explained the facility’s procedures for treating patients afflicted in chemical or biological attacks, while Executive Director Caryn Schwab discussed major improvements the hospital has undertaken since its acquisition two years ago by the much larger Mt. Sinai in Manhattan.
LaGuardia General Manager Warren Kroeppel assured people that the airport, which is less than a mile from where the meeting was held, “is in good shape now” with added security measures.
“We’ve always had a disaster plan,” Gualtieri said in the crowded basement hall at Augustana Lutheran Church, where the civic had attracted a much larger audience than usual.
The hospital has already had experience dealing with “real mass casualties over the years,” he said, including the U.S. Airways crash at LaGuardia Airport and an episode of subway tunnel smoke that sent 40 or 50 patients to its emergency room.
Gualtieri stressed that decontamination is the “most important thing” to do in the event of a chemical attack, which would prompt the hospital to set up an external triage area outside the facility where patients could shower with soap and water to remove the contaminants.
Treatment for such patients “would depend on exposure,” he said.
When concerned residents asked whether doctors would automatically check for anthrax in people exhibiting flu-like symptoms, Gualtieri said medical professionals would “go outside the box” and ask questions to determine the cause of any illness.
Regarding the anthrax threat, Gualtieri advised people to remain alert when checking their mail and going about their daily activities, while emphasizing the importance of washing one’s hands with warm water and soap for 45 seconds to reduce the threat of infection.
An $8 million construction project is currently underway to expand the emergency department and add new spaces for cardiology, mammography and endoscopy at Mt. Sinai Queens, while a just-launched diabetes center is offering in-patient and out-patient services as well as educational programs, Schwab said.
Kroeppel, the general manager at LaGuardia, assured the crowd that the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey “never lost a beat” after the attack on the World Trade Center, which was owned by the Port Authority and housed many of their employees, 74 of whom were lost.
“We have our own security plan” that in many cases goes beyond the additional safety measures that have recently been mandated by the federal government, he said.
For security reasons, however, Kroeppel was not allowed to provide details on many of the procedures.
“There are a number of significant changes that you don’t see,” he said.
To further put things in perspective, he recounted what one cab driver told a passenger as he was being dropped off in front of the airport.
“The most dangerous part of your trip just ended now,” the driver said.
Although those in attendance said they were generally pleased to learn how the community is prepared for the threat of terrorism, most said they were still concerned and would remain cautious.
“I’m still worried,” said Gina Russo, who will now drive with her husband to Florida instead of flying. “Now matter what they say, I’m still worried about the mail.”
Her husband Mike Russo was more cavalier in his reaction.
“As far as being scared — whatever’s gonna happen is gonna happen,” he said.
Reach reporter Dustin Brown by e-mail at Timesledger@aol.com or call 229-0300, Ext. 154.