Rockaways face health crisis after Sandy

Photo by Christina Santucci
By Steve Mosco

When Peninsula Hospital closed last year, many feared the Rockaways would plunge into a health crisis, and now in a post-Sandy world those fears are being put to the test.

“Anybody who doesn’t recognize that there is a significant health risk looming in the Rockaways has blinders on,” said state Assemblyman Phil Goldfeder (D-Ozone Park). “The lack of health care on the peninsula is something I’ve been dealing with for a long time now. And the likelihood of a real need for increased health care over the immediate future is definitely going to grow.”

Peninsula Hospital in Far Rockaway closed its doors in April, nearly 104 years after it first opened in the beach community. The shuttering of the 173-bed facility, which employed about 1,000 people, leaves one hospital on the peninsula: St. John’s Episcopal in Far Rockaway, a 257-bed facility with 29 full-time physicians on staff.

St. John’s remained operational through Hurricane Sandy and its aftermath with officials saying the staff worked two to three shifts at a time during the most critical hours to serve patients requiring critical care. According to a hospital spokeswoman, St. John’s has experienced a 40 percent increase in inpatient volume and emergency patient visits.

The spokeswoman also said the hospital continues to be full, with medical surgical units operating at 100 percent capacity, often because there are few places where discharged patients can be transferred.

As Rockaway’s only hospital remains at capacity, the city Department of Health released a report last month warning New Yorkers that prolonged time in apartments or homes without heat can cause hypothermia and exacerbate heart disease and other medical problems.

“The weather is getting colder and winter is not far off,” Health Commissioner Dr. Thomas Farley said. “Living in cold buildings is not good for your health. If your building heat is not going to be restored very soon, look for another warm place to live until it is. And check on your family, friends and neighbors, especially those who are vulnerable, to see if they need help getting into a warm place.”

Farley said the people at greatest health risk from prolonged exposure to the cold are the elderly, infants and those with chronic health problems — precisely the people that Goldfeder believes need an urgent care facility with beds to spare.

“A lot of people are out here working and breathing clean construction dust can cause a health risk,” said Goldfeder, busy rebuilding his own Rockaway home. “Now imagine mold, rotting wood and other debris in the air. Rockaway and South Queens are breathing this stuff and it’s troubling to me to even think about what people are going to be going through as we progress.”

The New York Nurses Association, a unionized association for registered nurses, rallied in front of Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s Manhattan home Saturday calling on him and Gov. Andrew Cuomo to set up mobile care units in the hardest-hit areas.

A spokesman said a mobile unit would ease overcrowding in places like the Rockaways with minimal health care facilities. And while volunteer groups went door-to-door checking on the medical needs of individual residents immediately following the storm, the union is also urging the mayor to have health officials carry out a broad scope assessment on the peninsula.

Meanwhile, the Joseph P. Addabbo Family Center, a community health center with two badly storm-damaged locations in the Rockaways, received a $250,000 grant from Direct Relief USA and the National Association of Community Health Centers last month to help rebuild after Sandy.

“These nonprofit clinics and health centers are on the front lines during emergencies, caring for their communities in darkness and in despair, as we have seen with Sandy. They have limited financial ability to absorb the blow right now, and yet their patients need help during this critical period,” said Thomas Tighe, president and CEO of Direct Relief.

The peninsula’s Addabbo health centers are located at 6200 Beach Channel Dr. in Arverne and 1288 Central Ave. in Far Rockaway. The facilities are staffed by licensed and trained physicians and provide primary care, pediatric services, family support and mental health resources. And while he commends the work done by the Addabbo health centers and the scores of volunteers who have helped residents, Goldfeder said his pre-Sandy stance on health care in the Rockaways has not changed: South Queens needs more access to affordable, quality health care. Now, in a post-Sandy world, that need has been magnified 10 times.

“In the immediate long term we need to open health centers and ensure that doctors are spread throughout the peninsula to address our health needs,” he said. “St. John’s is stretched to the limit and this area is ripe for another catastrophe.”

Reach reporter Steve Mosco by e-mail at smosco@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-260-4546.

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