Three Queens frontline workers recognized at 2020 Whole Health Heroes Awards

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Dr. Alfredo Astua, MD, chief of pulmonary and critical care medicine at NYC Health + Hospitals/Elmhurst (top left); Oren Barzilay, president of FDNY EMS Local 2507 in Whitestone (bottom left), and Lori Ames, national secretary treasurer at Home Healthcare Workers of America, of Briarwood (right). (Photos courtesy of MarinoPR)

Three Queens-based industry game changers were among 47 other prominent New York City individuals and teams to receive an award at the virtual 2020 Empire Whole Health Heroes Awards held on Feb. 18. 

The Queens honorees include Dr. Alfredo Astua, MD, chief of pulmonary and critical care medicine at NYC Health + Hospitals/Elmhurst; Oren Barzilay, president of FDNY EMS Local 2507 in Whitestone; and Lori Ames, national secretary treasurer at Home Healthcare Workers of America, of Briarwood. 

As part of its mission to improve the health of all New Yorkers, Empire BlueCross BlueShield, in partnership with Crain’s New York Business, announced the 50 honorees of the 2020 Empire Whole Health Heroes Awards program. Empire and Crain’s created this program to honor and celebrate individuals and teams whose commitment, kindness and exceptional leadership have helped to improve the health, wellness and safety of the city during the ongoing COVID-19 crisis. 

“COVID-19 hit New York early and hard, which meant that our communities were on the front lines of the response,” said Alan Murray, president & CEO of Empire BlueCross BlueShield. “In true form, many New Yorkers stood up to these new and evolving challenges, demonstrating resilience and innovation as they worked to address emerging needs across our city. It was a true honor to learn about these stories as part of selecting our 50 honorees. Thank you to the honorees and all applicants for your service during this past year.”

Frederick Gabriel Jr., publisher and executive editor of Crain’s New York Business, said it was a privilege to work in partnership with Empire BlueCross BlueShield in bringing these remarkable stories to light. 

“Crain’s is proud to be part of the 2020 Empire Whole Health Heroes Awards program to honor and celebrate 50 individuals and teams that demonstrated remarkable compassion, empathy and true leadership during the pandemic,” Gabriel Jr. said. 

All honorees were recognized in three categories: healthcare, business and essential workers. The honorees received a crystal award to commemorate their selection on the list and were featured in a print and digital section in Crain’s New York Business on Feb. 22. Empire also made a donation to the Food Bank for New York City to honor this year’s heroes. 

Dr. Alfredo Astua, MD, chief of pulmonary and critical care medicine at NYC Health + Hospitals/Elmhurst

Astua, a native to the Elmhurst community after immigrating from Nicaragua, dedicated his award to all healthcare workers on the front lines of the pandemic.

“I know that the main thing I have learned is that I am a part of a wonderful team, and we can take excellent care of our patients, and get through anything, even COVID,” Astua said. “We can work diligently and feverishly in order to accomplish our goals and have more and more of our patients come home to their families.”

During the pandemic, Astua steered lifesaving care to hundreds of patients in New York City. He created Elmhurst hospital’s original COVID-19 treatment plan and co-created the latest version of the guidelines. His forward thinking and leadership proved pivotal in mobilizing and orchestrating care for the surge in patients in the intensive care unit. He also expanded care for critically ventilated patients by more than 500 percent in just a few weeks.

Astua instructed, supervised and guided all hired and volunteer physicians that came to assist during the surge in COVID-19 cases. In addition, Astua inaugurated, perfected and implemented lifesaving treatments, including intermittent prone positioning for patients presented with life-threatening adult respiratory distress syndrome.

Additionally, Astua took part in town hall meetings in order to implement ideas, plan courses of action as well as alert the community to the treatment options available at Elmhurst Hospital. He held podcasts with organizations across the country in order to teach lessons learned and successful processes from his experience with these critically ill patients. He continues in his leadership role by coordinating preparatory plans for a second surge, teaching all he knows to medical and nursing colleagues as well as planning for the long-term care of the fragile COVID-19 patient population.

Oren Barzilay, president of FDNY EMS Local 2507

Barzilay leads the 4,000-plus member FDNY Emergency Medical Service (EMS) union in Whitestone and is one of the most widely recognized advocates for frontline medical first responders battling COVID-19 in New York. 

“Early on in the pandemic, there were certainly times when many thought this nightmare would never end. The 4,000 women and men of the FDNY EMS were steadfast in manning the front lines, answering hundreds of thousands of medical emergency calls, at great risk to themselves and to their families,” Barzilay said. “As New Yorkers we do not back down from a challenge and the city is stronger because of that dedication and sacrifices. To receive this acknowledgment means a great deal to all of our members.

Barzilay’s members respond to over 1.5 million annual medical emergencies, the busiest first responder group in America, managing the bulk of all FDNY emergencies, and during COVID, call volumes rose 200 percent. Starting in February, with the NY State Nurses Association, he helped lead an issues briefing for the New York and national press corps to paint an accurate picture of New York City’s unpreparedness for the virus. As its toll mounted, he provided critical transparency about the harsh realities, difficulties and dangers these heroes of the pandemic — often referred to as New York’s Street Doctors — experienced daily while protecting New Yorkers.

With medical studies now showing that FDNY members were 15 times more likely to contract COVID-19 and FDNY EMS members five times more likely than FDNY firefighters to contract the virus, Barzilay’s staunch advocacy and leadership was necessary in a time of deep crisis for New York and the rest of the nation to grasp the overwhelming medical crisis.

Lori Ames, national secretary treasurer at Home Healthcare Workers of America (HHWA)

During the height of the pandemic, Ames advocated aggressively for the health, workplace safety, wages and benefits of over 20,000 essential home healthcare workers caring for New York’s most vulnerable. 

“On behalf of the 28,000 home health care professionals we advocate for, my thanks go out to Crain’s New York and BlueCross BlueShield for the recognition of our work on the front line as New York health heroes,” Ames said. “While the pandemic put immense stress on our healthcare systems, these dedicated caregivers served a critical role by providing for more than 100,000 of our region’s most vulnerable who are homebound.”

Every day during the pandemic, the unheralded HHWA workforce entered the homes of New York’s sick, elderly, those with special needs, at great risk to themselves, to provide necessary care and companionship. Yet by early June, 11 HHWA members had already lost their lives; 540 tested positive for COVID-19; 350 had symptoms of COVID-19; and 475 lost access to childcare or to their ability to visit immune-compromised family members.

 Ames took her message to Congress, testifying twice before the House Select Subcommittee on the coronavirus crisis. At the same time, she stressed to top New York state medical regulators in Albany the urgent need to maintain the services of home care workers. Ames successfully dramatized the realities these unsung home health care heroes confront daily and the need for federal government intervention and resources.

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