On January 25, 2020, I found myself at Terminal 4 of Kennedy Airport, awaiting a speaker to arrive from the EU, from Belgium, to discuss religious freedom at our local Greek Christian Church. There were flights arriving from China, and I noticed almost all exiting passengers were wearing masks. Quite a few were coughing. I went into the restroom and several men were taking their masks off and appeared feverish, coughing and unwell. I decided to leave the bathroom, holding my breath while exiting.
I went to the café to get a coffee and could hear two airport workers in mechanic outfits talking about many flights from China coming daily to JFK and Newark, but for some reason domestic flights on the master board in Wuhan were very limited. As a student of history and pandemics, I thought of the 1917–18 pandemic and how ships arrived from Europe in New York, followed by thousands of Spanish Flu deaths in the tri-state area. Because I have been involved with buying medical equipment in the past for our local hospital, missionary trips, and putting defibrillators in all the Southampton town and village police cars, an emergency meeting of the Hamptons Health Society was called to begin ordering masks, gowns, gloves, ventilators, high flow nasal oxygen machines, pulse oximeters, Lysol, alcohol and hand sanitizer.
With small and large donations, we were able to get many of the supplies we needed to keep our frontline hospital, EMS and police safe, as well as distribute masks to all of the East End towns and villages. Everyone came together like a big family, our congressmen, state senators, town supervisors, village mayors, police chiefs, the sheriff, PBAs, DA office, EMS, fire departments, doctors, nurses, cleaning teams, clerks and many more to prepare for a battle against an invisible, microscopic giant killer yet to be named COVID-19. This virus spread quickly and little was known about how to tackle it.
Out here we were blessed to have Howard Sklarek, M.D. running our ICU. He is board-certified in Internal Medicine, Pulmonary Medicine, ICU Critical Care, and Palliative Care. He is one of the few people in the world with four board certifications. In addition, we had Dr. Tassiopoulos, the Chairman of Vascular Surgery at Stony Brook University, developing protocols with his team to stop the peculiar blood clots, strokes and embolisms the virus caused. The entire health care system out on the East End rallied and was fortunate to have one of the highest success rates in the country for treating COVID-19. Hospital administrators such as Robert Ross and Bob Chaloner worked tirelessly seven days a week. There were more than 30 respiratory therapy heroes under the leadership of Jeff Russell, director of respiratory care, on the front lines, keeping people alive on ventilators and oxygen around the clock. We were in a war with an invisible monster with some scary moments and confusion. The Surgeon General and head of the AMA said masks were not needed early on. Dr. Anthony Fauci spoke on 970 AM Radio, CATS Roundtable radio show on January 25, and when asked if this was something we should worry about, said, “I don’t think so.” Our supply chain of masks and gowns came mostly from China, as well as the components and medicines we needed. On TV, there would be news conferences, but never a real doctor who actually treats patients—only government epidemiologists.
Before internet, social media and cable news, there was the 1967-68 Hong Kong Flu, with more than 100,000 dead in the USA and 1 million worldwide. Life continued and super spreader events like Woodstock went on. Throughout history, whenever humanity overcrowds in cities, viruses appear and shake off excess population from the planet. Most of these pandemics in history last 16–18 months and go in two or three waves and eventually burn out. The virus mutates and learns that if it keeps killing off its human hotel hosts, it won’t survive itself. These killer strains of RNA take over the cells in our body, launch an attack against them. The inflammation caused by our immune system response is what causes the cytokine storm in our lungs, and the fluid generated is like drowning as it blocks the oxygen from permeating into our lungs. Besides fever, cough, headache, body aches, nausea and vomiting, this virus has presented with symptoms like loss of smell, called “anosmia.”
I spoke with one of the leading dermatologists in the country from NYU, Dr. Kenneth Mark, who has offices in the Hamptons, who told me about a symptom called COVID Toes—swollen, pink, red or even purple. This condition mimicked a diagnosis called “Chilblains,” in which painful inflammation of small blood vessels occurs in response to repeated exposure to cold; in the case of COVID, it was due to compromised circulation. In addition, he mentioned that several patients had peculiar head and body hair loss. Fortunately, we are learning more about therapeutics, ready-made antibodies and vaccines that will soon be available.
We are wearing masks, washing hands, social distancing, using UV-C lights in our central air and heating systems, and UV sanitizer boxes to zap our mail packages and groceries. (Shimon Peretz of Shape and Structure on Mariner Drive in Southampton makes them locally). Washing hands, wearing masks, social distancing, eating healthy and avoiding crowded indoor spaces will help tackle the virus.
In the coming weeks, we will cover the details of ways to help us all get through this. We will be speaking to an integrative medicine specialist, Dr. Magdalena Swierczewski, who will update us on vitamins, minerals and foods to boost our immune systems during COVID. We will also update you on the amazing work of Dr. Yianacopoulos, a Columbia University trained MD PhD, whose company will be releasing ready-made monoclonal antibodies to give many at-risk and frontline doctors, nurses and hospital staff protection. We will be reporting on the amazing work of Dr. David Ho of Columbia University, who invented the “HIV Cocktail” antiviral treatment that saved many lives from AIDS. His work at Columbia has isolated antibodies from COVID patients that will fit like a condom over the spike protein of coronavirus that is like a needle that enters and infects our cells with COVID. I look forward to sharing this news from real doctors and scientists on the frontlines with the Dan’s Papers audience.
Peter Michalos, MD is Associate Professor of Clinical Ophthalmology, Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons; Past President of Medical Staff and Past Chief of Surgery Southampton Hospital; Chairman Hamptons Health Society. He has been a resident of Southampton for three decades.