Council Member Costa Constantinides (photo: New York City Council)
The whole thing happened so fast. One minute my son and I are playing video games and the next he and my wife, who struggles with diabetes and is in renal failure, rush out the door to her mother’s apartment. So much has changed for my family and our community in the weeks since my fever first hit 102 degrees. However, throughout this experience, one thing remains shockingly clear: we need more hospitals in Queens and to reimagine how people access health care in the World’s Borough.
Queens is the epicenter of the epicenter. All of us — from those who fell ill, to our healthcare workers, to those whose anxiety was worsened by being locked in for weeks — will no doubt carry physical and mental scars forever. My family’s hellish few weeks of multiple trips to the hospital is the story of so many residents of Queens, where well over 56,000 positive cases are among the most of any county in New York State. And in many ways my wife and I are lucky.
Still, I’ll admit it’s been hard not to be angry at the fact that Queens has lost five hospitals over the last 20 years. You cannot refute that the loss of hundreds of hospital beds over a two-year period in the late 2000s is part of the reason why so many people have died — many at home surrounded by panicked relatives unsure of what to do. About one-sixth of all New York State’s positive COVID-19 cases have been in Queens, a borough of 2.3 million people serviced by eight hospitals. It doesn’t take a math expert to see this was a doomed situation from the get-go. Because we didn’t have a plan sooner to flatter the curve, a tidal wave crashed down on our already worn-out health-care system -- and we couldn’t even brace for it.
This virus is an enigma even the world’s most brilliant minds are still working to crack. Not understanding the symptoms has led many of us to overthink every cough. Panic reigned supreme. Was I cold because the fever is back or because the window was open? Do I have to go to the hospital for burning my hand on the radiator, potentially spreading this to more people? Why did I feel better one day and twice as worse the next? It took weeks to accept the fact that I cannot unpack this problem, determine the cause, and find a creative solution. I could not legislate away the coronavirus.
The best I can do is to get better, then work like hell to make sure other people can solve this. Once we’re fully on the other side of this curve the first order of business must be to build new hospitals in Queens. We lacked the capacity to properly observe all COVID-19 patients, let alone treat any other illnesses or injuries people experienced during the apex. The isolation of this virus is the cruelest part, as it takes away the support system on which we all rely. Many sat at home like I did, frightened by their symptoms, left to stare at their son’s toys on the floor or their wedding photo on the wall and wonder, Will I ever see my family again?
New hospitals shouldn’t be just about saving the lives of people who walk into them. It’s about those who run them, too. Our health-care workers are heroes, but they’ve also borne the burden of a pared down medical system. They work tiring shifts without enough protective equipment. Because we cannot hold our loved ones’ hands as they succumb to this virus, these heroes provide those last moments of comfort. Many are stoics who shrug it off as “part of the job,” but we know they are silently fighting severe emotional distress. A memorial to them is overdue. But the greatest tribute we can make is to build the infrastructure, both in more capacity so they can do their best job possible the next time a pandemic strikes and in support so they won’t be coming home to deal with tragedy alone.
I first ran for office seven years ago on the promise to support Mount Sinai Queens, which in 2004 didn’t have the specialized resources to treat my father for an aneurysm. He died in transit to the closest Manhattan hospital that could. My hope was that no one would have to face the choice I did: let him die here in Queens or run the risk of crossing the bridge. I thought it was a major victory when we funded a state-of-the-art stroke center there. I've been proud to support and partner on this vision of growth at Mt. Sinai. In hindsight, however, it was a drop in the bucket. So much more is needed now.
Everyone should have the ability to go to a hospital. The hard work to get out of this crisis has only begun. It will be all for nothing unless we fight for greater hospital capacity. I owe it to the countless people who made sure our son still has his mom and dad.
Costa Constantinides is a New York City Council Member and candidate for Queens Borough President. On Twitter @Costa4NY.