Atlantic Health System, which operates some of the state’s most highly regarded hospitals, has been deeply involved in the fight against COVID-19 in all its phases. At the peak of the pandemic last spring, the system was treating 900 patients. And since the start of the vaccine rollout, Atlantic has been at the forefront of getting shots in New Jerseyans’ arms, working with the state to run the mega-site in Morris County.
So it’s probably not surprising that Atlantic President and Chief Executive Officer Brian Gragnolati is still cautious about the outlook. NJBIZ recently spoke with Gragnolati about his experience during the pandemic and why New Jerseyans should not let their guard down just yet.
“I’m just kind of just gun shy about this thing,” he said. “We encourage our team members to continue to be safe, but the reality is people are ready to get out. Businesses are ready to begin to go back to the way they did business before. We actually have a service to help companies go through startup now in terms of what they need to do to bring the workforce back on site. So I’m looking forward to a great summer and I’m hoping that people will give honest answers when they’re asked questions and wear masks when they should be wearing masks and that when we come into the fall we’ll be in a better place but it’s all on us.”
What follows is an excerpt from that discussion. The questions and answers have been edited for length and clarity. The full interview is available here.
NJBIZ: You and I have spoken at various stages of the pandemic and I was interested in talking to you now, because it really does seem like, and I think a lot of people are feeling that we really are reaching the end right now over the next couple of months. I’m wondering if that’s your experience and, if so, how is that playing out at your hospitals and other facilities.
Brian Gragnolati: You know I think we’re clearly at a good point right now, particularly relative to the journey that we’ve been on for the last 16 months. I’m not sure I describe it as close to the end because I have this very suspicious nature about these variants and the fact that we still need to be careful because we don’t have enough of the population vaccinated yet.
Q. Right. OK, the second wave, which would I guess we’re still in, never really got as bad as the first in terms of the number of cases, and the number of fatalities, but it seems to have been more persistent. Is that because of the variants? Or what do you attribute that to?
A. You know, I think that this period of time that we’ve had since January has been really interesting to watch and here at Atlantic — at our peak as you and I have discussed several times, we were at 900 cases and that was back in last April. Over a year ago we have 900 patients in our hospitals a day, and this April, we are treating in the 50 to 100 range so that’s been a remarkable difference.
As we worked down since January we seem to be hitting these plateaus and I think it’s for a couple of reasons. One is, I think the priority setting on the vaccines was spot on. Getting into the nursing homes to get the most vulnerable vaccinated and then move on from there. I think that’s been a godsend terms of reducing hospital utilization and people being really sick.
The second thing is masks. I think that people in New Jersey have really adopted what the guidance was over the last six or eight months on mask-wearing and distancing. And I know there’s been some criticism about that, but without the use of these, we would have seen what had happened in other states over this spring. I’m really glad that we didn’t see that here in New Jersey.
We encourage our team members to continue to be safe, but the reality is people are ready to get out.
Q. And that actually is a good lead-in into my next question, which is the CDC guidelines on masks and the state’s response to it. The CDC seeming to loosen its guidelines, I think, led a lot of people to that belief that we talked about at the top, that this was starting to end. Or at least we were at the beginning of the end. How do you view the CDC guidelines, and is the state taking the right approach, essentially, leaving the indoor mask mandate in place even for everybody?
A. I was listening to various officials talk about this, and I think that the CDC guidance was ambiguous, to some extent. What it said in just plain English is that if you’ve been vaccinated you don’t have to wear a mask. And there’s a whole list of guidelines around that so, for example, if you’re coming into one of our hospitals or doctors’ offices, or visit a patient you’re going to wear a mask and we’re also still going to take your temperature.
The quandary is how do you validate whether somebody’s been vaccinated? I think that that has just been left wide open and that is causing a lot of consternation and a dilemma. So if I think about the New Jersey experiences in the spring where we were so rigorous around masking, I think is important and I actually think what the governor’s doing about being cautious about just kind of opening this all up without the ability to have a validation of whether you’ve been vaccinated is the right thing to do.
Because this honor system, if you look across the country how that’s worked and in medicine we take care of great people, and I have great confidence that people do the right thing, but how many people don’t follow their medication orders? And they’re doing it because it might be inconvenient. Or how many people don’t follow up on their treatment plans. And that second vaccination visit – I think 7 or 8% [don’t get the second dose]. It’s not because they’re dishonest people. It’s for some reason they find it convenient not to do that. So how many times are we going to face a server in a restaurant or a maitre’d or a receptionist. And he or she is going to be put in a position of looking at somebody like you and saying hey Jeff, have you been vaccinated? She can’t tell by looking at you. And then you’re going to have that moment of pause.
Q. Well, I do have my card in its protective plastic folder.
A. That’s fantastic. And the fact you carry that means that you came out of kind of the same nerd patrol that I did. My guess is that most of people that we know, particularly younger people probably aren’t carrying that right now. And I think that’s the dilemma that we face as a country right now. We had the guidance that yeah if you’re vaccinated you don’t need to wear a mask and you know, things are opened up in a broader way but we’re putting a lot of responsibility right now on businesses to be the police on this because we don’t have an effective tool to be able to you know flash something and say, “hey I’m vaccinated I got this.”