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Written by Kimberly Bollard. This article was originally published in the Sparta Independent.
New Jersey’s healthcare workers have been working tirelessly throughout the COVID-19 crisis. However, three Premier Health Associates physicians were recently noted from our community for their extra efforts in different areas of medicine. Premier Health Associates is a medical group that is primarily located in northern New Jersey. Doctors Casella, Ponzio, and Shah have worked day and night in their respective specialties to ensure the wellbeing of patients who have fallen victim to the virus.
Dr. Joe Casella has been working in the nursing home and overcoming multiple obstacles that were thrown his way. When the virus first hit New Jersey, there was a severe personal protective equipment (PPE) shortage. Because of this, many healthcare workers could not enter the rooms of the infected patients. Dr. Casella had to speak with many patients over the phone and receive medical charts directly from nurses.
Early on, the virus spread rapidly throughout nursing homes due to the lack of PPE and uncertainty about the virus. Several nurses and CNA’s got sick. Thankfully, the spread of the virus in nursing homes has slowed significantly now that testing is more readily available.
“We’ve implemented the nasal test for COVID in all of the nursing homes in Northwest New Jersey, and basically on anyone who has had exposure or has an active case. [The virus] has significantly slowed down,” says Dr. Casella. “We also kept the patients in the nursing home, which saved the hospitals from being overrun.”
Dr. Geralyn Ponzio performed palliative care at Newton Medical Center and Hackettstown Medical Center during the COVID-19 crisis. Her area of expertise includes helping family members and patients understand the situation at hand, and figuring out how to effectively honor the patient’s and family’s wishes.
Dr. Ponzio dealt with a high quantity of cases at once. Trying to clarify the wishes of the patient and the family in a timely fashion with such an influx of patients proved to be challenging at first. She was taken onto the hospital staff early on in the pandemic, and worked with the palliative care nurses for 2 and a half months.
The need for her care has decreased as the cases have drastically slowed, though it may never entirely disappear. “I don’t think we will ever be down to zero coronavirus cases. Just like SARS, and MERS, and all of the crazy flus that have come out in the last 10 to 20 years. They’re still there. It’s just going to be another one of the things we treat,” Dr. Ponzio says.
Pulmonologist Dr. Samir Shah has been working at Newton Medical Center nonstop since the pandemic began. He has trained in India, where he has seen other pandemics, such as malaria and cholera. But no other pandemic has been as devastating as COVID-19. The length and duration of staying in the intensive care unit and on ventilator makes this different than any other illness.
Oxygenating patients proved difficult at first, before doctors knew how to handle this disease. Dr. Shah has practiced a new technique for oxygenating patients: putting them in a prone position. Putting patients in a prone position allows the lungs to fully expand, since up to 70% of your lungs is in your back. Treating patients in the prone position was a new challenge that doctors never had to face before.
Treating COVID patients was a team effort. The respiratory team, nurses, physical therapists, critical care doctors all played a role. “The challenge and gratifying thing about this experience was that everybody came together and worked with every patient. We have never seen everybody coming together like this to take care of the patients, because we all wanted to just do one thing: save lives,” says Dr. Shah.
Everyone entering the hospital is screened, but most patients coming to the hospital now are COVID-negative. Social distancing and quarantining has helped the pandemic slow down significantly.
According to Dr. Shah, it is still unclear what a second wave of COVID-positive cases will look like. “Most medical professionals and infectious disease doctors believe that we are going to see a surge. It may not be as bad since we know what to do now.”
If the virus does surge back in the future, rest assured the experts at Premier Health Associates are becoming better at screening and treating than ever before, and this should limit the damage caused.