'Heartbreaking, intense, unprecedented': Suffolk County battling a medical 'war zone' as COVID cases continue to rise

"We are in the thick of this right now," one county executive said.

April 9, 2020, 1:10 PM

As New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo offers cautious optimism about a possible slowing of novel coronavirus cases in the state, a leader in Suffolk County says there's no such hope there right now.

"The numbers are moving quickly,” County Executive Steve Bellone told ABC News. “You talk about flattening in other places but that’s not happening here. We are in the thick of this right now.”

The Long Island county had at least 17,008 confirmed COVID-19 cases and at least 323 related deaths as of Thursday, according to the New York state health department. It was one month ago the county confirmed its first case.

In the last 72 hours, among the fatalities were two nurses who tested positive for coronavirus. They died in different Suffolk County hospitals. One was a 63-year-old at Huntington Hospital and the other was an ICU nurse in Brookhaven.

Bellone described the situation as “heartbreaking, intense, unprecedented.”

PHOTO: Workers direct traffic at a testing facility for coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Jones Beach on Long Island in New York, March 17, 2020.
Workers direct traffic at a testing facility for coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Jones Beach on Long Island in New York, March 17, 2020.
Andrew Kelly/Reuters, FILE

“It’s tragic, but it drives home the point that these health care workers are doing extraordinary things in an intense environment that is the medical equivalent of a war zone," Bellone said.

He estimates the county is a week or two behind New York City, where the hospital system was hammered but has since seemingly stabilized. New York has the most reported cases of any state in the U.S.

Cuomo said Monday there was a "possible flattening of the curve" after the total number of hospitalizations, intensive care unit admissions and daily intubations fell.

Of the 62 counties in the state, Suffolk County is the fifth most impacted by the virus.

Personal protective equipment can last through the week, Bellone said, but he is still hunting for more.

“The burn rate on all of this is incredible,” he said. “Early on here you had hospital workers recycling PPE that in the past would have been thrown out after one use.”

Deaths are also coming awfully fast and morgue space is scarce.

The county considered using ice rinks as temporary morgues before additional refrigerated trucks were brought in and an unused building on a county farm was converted into storage for bodies.

“We can see the death toll and it is horrific, but what we can’t see is the emotional toll that this is taking on families and health care workers that may prove to be just as devastating,” Bellone said.

Other Long Islanders haven't been spared. In Nassau County, the third most impacted in the state, there are more than 18,500 confirmed cases, according to the state's health department.

Sen. Kevin Thomas, who represents part of Nassau, told ABC News personal protective equipment for medical workers there was similarly lacking.

"We shouldn't be begging or competing or asking for charity when it comes to the situation right now," Thomas said.

He estimated that hospitals were going through about 8,000 masks a day and needed more.

Thomas said there was no time to play politics right now given the dire situation.

Dorothy Goosby, a councilwoman for the Town of Hempstead who is seen as a civil rights icon on Long Island, said it's been "a devastating time."

"So many friends, members of my church, neighbors have just passed away," she told ABC News.

Goosby herself tested positive for coronavirus in early March and spent several days at Winthrop Hospital. She said the nurses "worked around the clock."

She felt fortunate to "have the right treatment at the right time," adding that when she was finally released, the hospital she entered looked very different.

"I just closed my eyes in shock and prayed. I have never seen so many people waiting for help, it's just mind boggling," Goosby said. "People feel like they're not getting help but I saw first hand those doctors and nurses are working as hard as they can."

What to know about Coronavirus:

ABC News' Ivan Pereira contributed to this report.

Related Topics