Big numbers, smaller concerns: ‘We all have playbooks that we developed from the prior surge’

Atlantic’s Gragnolati on why hospitals are better equipped to handle second surge — and why patients shouldn’t put treatments on hold

Brian Gragnolati. (File photo)

There were 6,046 new cases of COVID-19 on Sunday, 5,820 on Tuesday and 5,367 last Saturday. Whether these cases are related to Thanksgiving is unclear, but this much is certain: They are higher daily cases totals than anything the state saw in the spring.

Here’s why that fact isn’t as alarming as you might think.

“We were a little shy of 300 patients in all of our hospitals in Atlantic (on) Tuesday, but that’s really where we expected to be,” Atlantic Health CEO Brian Gragnolati said. “Now, compare that to what the number was back in the spring, when we were at 900 patients per day. This has been quite different.”

Cause for concern? Maybe a little. But Gragnolati said there is a confidence that comes with handling a second surge — especially one that is coming in more slowly.

“This has been a gradual increase, as opposed to the doubling every two or three days that we saw at the beginning of the pandemic,” he said. “So, the circumstance here in New Jersey is concerning, very concerning — and I think those things that the governor has been talking about are really important — but it is nowhere near where we were in the spring.”

Back then, Gragnolati admits Atlantic Health and everyone else was flying blind.

“We had to shut down a lot of the health care system at that point because we were dealing with the unknown,” he said. “Now, we know what we need to do. We all have playbooks that we developed from the prior surge. And we’re all following them. That’s enabled us to continue to care for patients that need anything during this period of time. We have not curtailed services in any way.”

Keeping all parts of the hospital open has not stopped one big issue: Some people are still afraid to come to a facility — and their health is suffering because of it, Gragnolati said.

“I want to reinforce to people that our hospitals are safe places to receive care, but we still see people reluctant to engage in the health care system,” he said “Because of that, we do see instances where tests have been missed. People have been reluctant to get their screening exams, and then they present with problems that are more significant than they could have been if there were addressed in an earlier fashion.

“The other sad thing that we continue to see is that our paramedics get called to some homes for services, that they’re doing more pronouncements still in the field than they had been before COVID. So, there’s still a reluctance about people to engage in the system to some extent. But we’ve really seen that minimized because of the way we’ve been approaching things.”

It’s just another reason why Gragnolati hasn’t hit the panic button as the daily cases continue to trend upward. A trend that Atlantic has been expecting.

“Our modeling actually has been spot on,” he said. “It’s been pretty remarkable how we’ve been able to kind of predict the flow.”

None of the modeling indicates New Jersey will approach its spring-like numbers, Gragnolati said. But that can’t be taken for granted.

“We want to make sure that we don’t go back to March, April and May, which means people need to follow the things that the governor’s talking about, so that we don’t have to shut down the economy.”

Or parts of the hospitals.

“A key message is to continue to get your health care,” he said. “The scenes that you see on the national news were the kinds of scenes that you saw coming out of New York and New Jersey in March and April and May. And they’re very serious in those communities.

“But, here in New Jersey, we’re better off than we were back in the spring. And, thank God that’s the case.”

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