As with local governments across New York State, East Hampton Town Supervisor Peter Van Scoyoc and town board members have been battling the COVID-19 pandemic on many different fronts, from stocking food pantries to staffing newly opened beaches, while working to keep the public safe.
On May 19, the board adopted a resolution naming Dr. Bruce Polsky to the post of medical consultant to the town. Dr. Polsky, who is a leading epidemiologist, as well as an associate dean and professor at NYU Long Island School of Medicine, will advise the town on the science involved as the town and businesses slowly reopen following the two-month shutdown caused by COVID-19.
The Independent spoke with Dr. Polsky, who is providing his services to the town gratis, on May 22.
“I consider it a civic duty,” he said.
Dr. Polsky was asked to compare the battle against COVID-19 with the last great worldwide viral pandemic of 1918-1919, caused by the virus known then as Spanish influenza. While the two viruses are quite different, they share one grim trait: they are highly infectious.
The 1918-1919 pandemic struck in three waves. After the first wave, late winter/early spring 1918, there was a lull of several months before the second, and deadliest wave struck, seemingly all at once across the country and around the world in September and October 1918.
“A virus never really totally disappears,” Dr. Polsky said. “It is present at low levels. No one knows exactly what causes it to re-emerge with a vengeance like it did in the fall of 1918. I believe that wave of infection was responsible for most of the deaths in that pandemic.”
But why did it become widespread at that time? “Some people believe that it caught fire because school went back into session, and people were congregating more. But it is not exactly known why. It’s very speculative.”
Could COVID-19 be following the path of the 1918 influenza pandemic?
“We could be looking at a repeat of that pattern. That is the fear. That is the concern and that is why when you hear over and over scientific experts comment on that, that is why the majority of us have favored a cautious relaxation of our restrictions.”
If you have had COVID-19, will the antibodies developed in your system make you immune to reinfection?
“We don’t know. If someone tests positive for antibodies, we don’t know what the role of those antibodies are at this stage.”
The hope, Dr. Polsky said, is in developing a vaccine. “I can’t put a timeline on it, but there will be a vaccine, and there will be one or more medicines that treat this thing.”
He explained his optimism. “There is enough known about this virus. We have the advantage of knowing its entire genome. And we know its close relatives, the first SARS virus, and the MERS virus. There is a fair amount of information on these viruses so that the idea of developing a direct-acting anti-viral vaccine is something that should be achievable.”
As medical consultant to the town, Dr. Polsky will be weighing in on approaches various businesses should take as they begin to get the green light to reopen, like the restaurant business, as well as businesses already open, like hotels.
A week before Memorial Day, the East Hampton Town Board sent the governor a letter asking that he bar East End hotels from booking tourists. Local hotel industry representatives blasted the letter. Paul Monte was one of many who said he felt his industry had been “blindsided” by the letter.
How should these businesses conduct themselves going forward?
“I don’t know what the answer is. The hospitality industry is an up-close and personal industry and that applies to restaurants as well. You go into a restaurant wearing a mask and pull it down each time you take a bite of food? How can that be pleasant?”
However, Dr. Polsky believes outdoor dining in East Hampton this season can be a solution. Restaurants that have ample outdoor seating areas, and are willing to reduce capacity to ensure a safe distance between tables, and minimize contact between staff and guests, are likely to get a thumbs up from Dr. Polsky, if and when the industry gets a green light to operate later this summer season.
Hotels present another challenge. Because guests must be treated as if they are potentially infectious, masks must be worn by staff and guests. Staff members should have little if any contact with guests. If protocol is followed, “I can’t imagine it is going to be a very pleasant experience for the guests.”
Dr. Polsky’s name was first suggested as candidate for consultant by board member David Lys. Fellow councilman Jeffrey Bragman endorsed him as well.
Dr. Polsky and his wife began coming out to East Hampton over 20 years ago. “We started as transients, then started renting a house for the season.” They found a year-round rental they liked and took it, with an option to buy. Five years ago, the owner told them he wanted to sell. Now, they split their time between Manhattan and Springs.
The talk returned to COVID-19. One book is a must-read, Dr. Polsky said: Pulitzer Prize-winning author Laurie Garrett’s 1994 work, “The Coming Plague.” The book is sold out on Amazon, Dr. Polsky pointed out.
“I have been at this a long time. When I say I have hope, it is not based on an emotional level. It is based on the fact that we have the tools to be able to solve this, if we, as we are doing in the scientific community, marshal our forces to do that, that we will prevail.”
East Hampton Town Councilman Says More Science Needed
Bragman suggests two well-known doctors but board declines
East Hampton Town Board member Jeff Bragman joined the unanimous vote by his fellow council members May 19 to appoint Dr. Bruce Polsky scientific consultant to the town regarding COVID-19 related issues.
But, while he enthusiastically endorsed Dr. Polsky, Bragman feels the more, the merrier when it comes to the science of combatting the viral pandemic.
Bragman asked the board to consider appointing two additional scientific consultants, who, like Dr. Polsky, reside in the town. The councilman said both expressed interest in lending their expertise to the many difficult choices the town will have to make in the coming weeks and months.
Dr. Michael McDonald, whose resume states that he is “actively engaged in biosecurity, pandemic management, resilience and regeneration operations,” both in the United States and abroad, would bring expertise in battling disease. He also specializes in coping with and responding to natural disasters.
Bragman’s other recommendation was Dr. George Dempsey, who practices medicine in the Town of East Hampton. “Dempsey is a well-respected local physician,” Bragman said on Monday. “He provided an early and emphatic warning to ramp up an immediate and energetic response.”
At the May 19 meeting, town board members declined Bragman’s invitation to discuss adding the two additional consultants.
Bragman said Monday that both could prove invaluable in a crisis that centers on science, along with Dr. Polsky. “Together, these three doctors provide a breadth of medical knowledge necessary to inform town board decisions.” He added that he did not understand why the board would not at least consider the offer of service from the two doctors.