LIVINGSTON, NJ — Despite seeing fewer patients coming through the emergency department as well as a more steady flow of supplies over the last week at Saint Barnabas Medical Center (SBMC), Dr. Eric Handler, Medical Director of Emergency Medicine at SBMC, expects it to be least a few more months before New Jersey starts seeing life get back to “normal” after the pandemic.

Handler, who is board certified in emergency medicine and an attending emergency physician SBMC, addressed members of the Livingston, West Orange and North Essex Chambers of Commerce on Wednesday afternoon during a Zoom conference about what the COVID-19 crisis has looked like inside the emergency facility and what it will take for communities to be able to come out of quarantine.

In addition to providing tips about how residents should be properly protecting themselves from both the virus and mental illness during this time, Handler also spoke about when it is and is not appropriate for residents to be visiting the emergency room in order to avoid “putting strain on the system.”

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According to Handler, Saint Barnabas has recently seen a wave of COVID-19 patients “coming to the emergency department just because they were told their test was positive." The entire department is urging residents experiencing mild symptoms like coughing or fever to self-isolate and “refrain from the [emergency room] if at all possible.”

“If you do find yourself not feeling well and you feel that you need medical care and you feel it’s an emergency, most definitely call 9-1-1; but if you happen to come down with a cough or a fever, and you’re not having respiratory difficulty or some other emergent event, I would strongly urge you to stay home,” he said. “Unfortunately for this virus, there is not acute treatment, so staying home is the safest thing you can do so you don’t get others ill on your travels…

"If you are having respiratory difficulties, by all means, please reach out to your healthcare provider—and […] if you feel that it’s emergent, please come in—but otherwise, please do your best to stay home and manage the symptoms with supportive treatments.”

He also reiterated that testing is not available to the public at any emergency departments in the state and that many testing sites have been established throughout the area for residents experiencing symptoms of COVID-19.

“We’re still seeing patients that come to the facility—not just Saint Barnabas but other emergency departments as well—wanting to have the coronavirus swab done,” he said. “We have set up testing for our healthcare employees, but again, that is not community-wide. We are, over time, ramping up [on tests], but we’re unfortunately still not at the volume where we can offer testing to the community at-large.”

For all those not experiencing symptoms of the virus, Handler encouraged them to continue following all social-distancing recommendations, but to do so in a way that will “help stave off some of the mental illness aspects that can come along with strict social distancing.”

“I prefer the term ‘physical distancing’ because there are many ways to be social without being in physical contact with somebody,” he said. “The best thing that people can do right now, as tough as it is, is to stay home; but that doesn’t mean be scared and lock yourself in your room. It means be safe and be smart. You can still be outdoors and have fun and social distance.

“We don’t want people to come into the emergency department because they now have major depression because they’re not getting any sunlight exposure or seeing the outdoors. If you’re with your family and nobody is ill, go for a nice walk or go out in the backyard…The parks are closed, and that’s for good reason, but there are definitely still ways to enjoy yourself and time with your family.”

During the video conference, Handler took the opportunity to acknowledge all of those at Saint Barnabas and beyond who have stepped up during these “trying times.”

“I am but a small cog in a very big machine that is taking care of these patients,” said Handler. “The nurses, the ICU team, the under-critical-care members, the housekeeping staff who put themselves on the line every day to clean up the rooms after patients that have had exposure or are sick themselves, and all of the radiology techs and physicians who, day in and day out, are treating these patients as if they did not have any disease.

“They’re making sure they’re keeping themselves safe but providing the excellent medical care that we have in the past and not allowing this to stop us from doing what we need to do for these patients.”

Handler also expressed gratitude toward others in the medical community who are not involved in the day-to-day hospital work but who have lent their time and expertise to pitching in when needed—including pulmonologists who don’t typically work in the ICU but are helping out with vet management as well as primary doctors who are using telemedicine to treat their patients.

Outside of the healthcare system, Handler said it has been “extremely heartwarming to see the support of the community at-large.”

“And not just the Livingston community,” he said. “The list goes on and on in regards to those that have donated not just equipment, but food to the staff. I think we’re up to feeding over 600 people a day just at Barnabas, and I know there are other facilities around that are receiving these contributions as well.”

Handler specifically recognized the Asian Society of Millburn and the Asian Society of Bridgewater, who have “been amazing in regard to securing PPE (personal protective equipment) at no cost to the facility by raising funds in the community and then buying this equipment.”

“Through them, we have been able to procure PPE early on that I don’t believe we otherwise would have,” said Handler.

In fact, thanks to these and other organizations, Handler said that “the situation [at SBMC] is much better now than it was just a couple of weeks ago” and that the emergency department’s current supply of masks, gowns, goggles and other equipment is enough to last a few more weeks.

“So it’s not [like] in New York City, where people were sharing pictures of nurses [wearing] clear garbage bags; we have fortunately moved beyond that point,” said Handler, who added that the Chinese community has offered to continue collecting donations from those willing to assist in bringing in more supplies.

The topic of protective gear came up again when Handler fielded questions from the community.

Monte Ehrenkranz, president of the Livingston Area Chamber of Commerce (LACC), said the most common questions among residents were related to masks, such as how often the public should be wearing face masks, whether they should be making their own at home and the best materials for making their own.

“We are still asking the general public to not purchase N95 masks, which are the respirator masks,” said Handler. “We still are in short supply in regard to having them for the medical providers. Surgical masks, I think we’re starting to do a little bit better, but we’re still trying to keep those for the healthcare workers.”

To reiterate his point, Handler said his daughters were playing outside earlier this week when they noticed someone drive by the house wearing “a full respirator with the cartridges on the sides and gloves” inside the vehicle.

“I do not believe this is necessary,” said Handler. “If you happen to have it because you used to do paint work and it gives you some degree of comfort, great, but these are masks that are really needed for professionals and are not needed to take a drive to the supermarket.”

He did encourage community members to make their own masks if it would make them feel safer while venturing out of the home for essential purposes. He said there “isn’t necessarily one best material” for making these, but that there are many templates online for designing homemade face masks with “good old-fashioned cotton materials.”

“There are people starting to sell these on Amazon, but I would just caution people not to get swindled into spending large amounts of money on one of these,” said Handler. “Whether to wear the masks or not, that has been controversial even within the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) itself; but at this point, they are recommending that the public wear a cloth mask in order to not go through supplies that the medical staff needs.”

In the next few months, when it becomes safe for people to return to their regular lives, Handler said he predicts wearing cloth masks in public will “become a little more accepted and the norm” in the United States, as he believes COVID-19 is likely to become a seasonal illness.

“This definitely is a different virus than 2009, so I am in no way comparing this to H1N1 of 2009 from a severity standpoint, but you did see a lot of similar behaviors—not necessarily to the degree of the masks in the community, but definitely people wanting to distance themselves somewhat,” he said. “God willing, we will either come up with a way that is scientifically proven to treat [COVID-19] or a vaccine that is significantly effective.

“I still think this is going to be a seasonal illness moving forward, and there will still need to be, when we see cases ramp up, some degree—not to the extent that we’re seeing now—but some degree of social distancing.”

In response to additional questions from the public, Handler said he would need to “leave it to people beyond [his] pay grade” to say when the quarantine going to end, but that he foresees it being at least a couple more months until people can expect their lives to go back to “normal.”

“We really still need to see some significant decrease in the disease process before we can tell people to see their loved ones and get back to work,” said Handler, who also shared some statistics related to the number of patients being treated at SBMC. “Over the past couple days, we’ve seen less patients in volume, but we are still seeing a good number of COVID-19 patients coming through our doors. Unfortunately, it’s still the older members of our communities that are having trouble with breathing and unfortunately sometimes requiring artificial resuscitation and ventilation.”

When she introduced Handler to the community, Margie Heller, vice president of community health and strategic global partnerships a RWJBarnabas Health and a member of the LACC, said Handler is “not only a great physician,” but also “an incredible leader, mentor and friend.”

“He’s compassionate, caring and a go-to practitioner who is always the first one to step up and assist,” said Heller. “He’s always been a hero—not just through this pandemic; he’s just that guy. Yes, people and employees are rising up like never before, but Dr. Handler’s always been at the top.”

Also providing significant information during Wednesday's multi-chamber event were Congresswoman Mikie Sherrill and Paul Ceppi from the New Jersey Economic Development Authority, who both shared insight on assistance being provided to residents and businesses that have been impacted by the pandemic.

CLICK HERE to read about Sherrill’s community statement. Coverage of Ceppi’s portion of the program will be published in the coming days.

Wednesday’s Zoom program was held in conjunction with the Livingston Area Chamber of Commerce, the West Orange Chamber of Commerce and the North Essex Chamber of Commerce, which serves the communities of Caldwell, Cedar Grove, Essex Fells, Fairfield, Montclair, North Caldwell, Roseland, Verona and West Caldwell.