RWJBarnabas Health’s Ostrowsky: It’s time for N.J. to shelter in place

By Tom Bergeron
West Orange | Mar 18, 2020 at 11:58 am
Editor’s Desk

Barry Ostrowsky, the well-respected CEO of one of the state’s dominant health systems, RWJBarnabas Health, always chooses his words carefully and precisely.

So, his thoughts on how the country and state should deal with the growing coronavirus pandemic should be taken seriously. No matter how dramatic.

On Wednesday morning, Ostrowsky told ROI-NJ that he feels it’s time for a major quarantine of people in New Jersey and around the country. He’s calling for highly restrictive measures, a “shelter-in-place” scenario that only some officials across the country are trying to implement at this point.

“If we’re serious about flattening the curve, which is incredibly important, you’re not going to get there in any appreciable way without some kind of serious quarantine edict out of Washington,” he said. “It’s just not going to happen.”

More stringent restrictions are needed, Ostrowsky said. And as soon as possible.

“We have to build momentum toward taking restrictive steps in order to not provoke the kind of growth of this in a short period of time,” he said. “You should publish this: The public health approach of keeping people sheltered in place or quarantined is the most important thing, there’s no doubt about it. Otherwise, we’re just planning for this contagion in a pandemic way.

“Why don’t we see if we can’t stop much of it or spread it out over the months. It will be a lot easier — and certainly a lot less expensive. This, to me, is the biggest issue.”

Instead of planning to spend money on additional makeshift facilities — essentially acknowledging that we will not slow it down — Ostrowsky said the state and country should take a more dramatic step first.

“If you’re going to go build temporary hospitals, as opposed to trying to stop it before it gets to that point, then I’m afraid you’ll have your answer,” he said. “But I think it can be controlled much better for sure.”

Ostrowsky acknowledges that such a move would come with huge economic pain. He also wonders if that pain will come regardless of what course of action is taken.

“Clearly, everybody is evaluating the economic impact of the kinds of stringent steps that truly have to be taken versus what no one is debating, which is the positive and favorable impact on controlling the virus if you do take restrictive steps,” he said.

“So, I just picture in my mind folks in the White House and other places, sitting 6 feet apart on different sides of the room, debating this — and it’s always going to be, ‘What’s the public health impact and what’s the economic impact?’

“It seems to me the economy’s basically dying anyway. I think it’s a pill that has to be swallowed.”

It has been done. And to success, Ostrowsky said. He feels the state and the country should follow the lead of other countries. Particularly China. Yes, China. Where it all started. And where, now, it appears to be contained in a way we are trying to achieve.

Ostrowsky said RWJBarnabas Health has a sister hospital in China — as do all of the major systems in the state. He said he got an inside look at how it helped slow the spread.

“You know what happened when this thing broke out (in Wuhan)?” he asked and then answered. “The government locked down Beijing. They said, ‘You can’t leave your house.’ That’s 20 million people in Beijing. They had 400 cases. And they cleaned out five tertiary-level hospitals, each of which had 2,000 beds, by the way, to accommodate the cases that they felt they might have based on the contagion next door. It never materialized, which is great.

“And so, it proves — at least to me, maybe not to others — that if you want to effectively stop this rush on the current health care system, there’s a way to do it.”

I’ve interviewed Ostrowsky many times. I know he is one of the most influential thought leaders in the state. So, I had to confirm: “It appears you are suggesting very heavy restrictions — ones that would have people shelter in place, ones that would have us attack this full bore,” I said. “Is that an accurate view of your thoughts right now?”

“Absolutely,” he said. “Absolutely.

“I admit to the bias that I’m talking about it from a public health perspective. I’m not cavalier about the economic impact and I’m certainly not cavalier about, particularly, the vulnerable levels of our society who may suffer more economically. But those levels of society, those folks will suffer anyway for longer periods of time unless until we get through this. The way you characterized what I said is absolutely accurate.”

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