Looking Ahead, JCMC ER Doctor Finds Reasons to be Hopeful

People have taken seriously the message about the importance of social distancing, hand washing and wearing a mask

Dr. Deven Unadkat
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Dr. Deven Unadkat

Like many in the medical profession in New Jersey, Dr. Deven Unadkat is concerned about the growing number of positive COVID-19 cases in New Jersey, especially in Hudson County.

Since flattening out over the summer, the number of new positive COVID-19 cases has been steadily climbing. On August 28, Hudson County’s seven-day average was 17. This week, the seven-day average rose to 249.

But Dr. Unadkat, the chair and medical director of the Emergency Medicine at Jersey City Medical Center, also sees a ray of hope.

The reason: People have taken seriously the message about the importance of social distancing, hand washing and wearing a mask – three simple actions that can not only help stem the transmission of COVID-19, but other respiratory diseases that are typically spread in the winter months, such as pneumonia and the flu.

“Even though we are seeing an increase in positive COVID-19 cases, we’re not seeing an increase in deaths, and that’s very good,” Dr. Unadkat said. “But the virus remains a threat so it’s important that we continue to take all the precautionary steps that have been recommended. If everyone continues doing their part, we can contain this virus and even reduce the spread of other respiratory diseases as well.”

Dr. Unadkat said people are also coming to terms with the need to quarantine if they have symptoms of the coronavirus, or if they’ve come into contact with someone with the coronavirus.

“I remember when I saw my first patients and told them they had to quarantine, they didn’t understand,” Dr. Unadkat said. “They would ask if they could still go to work or school. Now we all understand what it means to quarantine. I don’t see that same degree of resistance to it.”

Dr. Unadkat said people are also more aware of the need to not spread diseases to older, more vulnerable populations.

“It’s pretty common now for people to get tested before they see a relative or friend who may be at risk,” he said.

Dr. Unadkat, who was raised in North Bergen and has family across Hudson County, was among the many doctors, nurses and other medical professions fighting the coronavirus pandemic on the front lines at Jersey City Medical Center. The city was hit particularly hard with nearly 7,000 COVID-19 cases and more than 500 COVID-19-related deaths, third in the state behind Newark and Paterson.

Prior to heading the Emergency Department at JCMC, Dr. Unadkat worked in emergency medicine at Newark Beth Israel Medical Center, Clara Maas Medical Center and Saint Barnabas Medical Center. He received his medical degree from New York College of Osteopathic Medicine and did his medical residency at a large, busy hospital in Queens.

It was perfect training for JCMC. The Emergency Department at JCMC sees some 80,000 patients annually. JCMC also operates a satellite facility in Bayonne, which sees about 20,000 patients a year. The Emergency Department at JCMC is state designated Level II Trauma Center for Hudson County, a certified primary stroke center.

Already among the busiest in the state, the Emergency Department will soon be among the largest. A state-of-the-art facility with 100 beds is slated to open in 2022.

“Jersey City itself is continuing to expand, so we must grow to support the needs of our community,” Dr. Unadkat said. “Our new Emergency Department will allow patients to be seen quickly without the need to wait.”

During the peak of the pandemic in the spring, nearly every patient coming into the Emergency Department was COVID-19 positive and most of the beds in the hospital had COVID-19 patients. Parts of the hospital were converted to care for critically ill patients, including entire sections of the Emergency Department.

Dr. Unadkat said being affiliated with RWJBarnabas Health, the largest healthcare system in the state, gave the hospital flexibility to create additional space for COVID-19 patients. For example, all pediatric patients were moved to the Children’s Hospital of New Jersey at Newark Beth Israel Medical Center, also affiliated with RWJBarnabas.

Dr. Unadkat said the most valuable lessons learned during the pandemic were teamwork, cooperation, understanding and flexibility. Because so much was unknown about the virus in the early days, recommendations and protocols were constantly changing.

“Every day something was going to change and we had to be open to that change,” Dr. Unadkat said.

Since the first cases of coronavirus presented at JCMC’s Emergency Department early this year, Dr. Unadkat said numerous changes have been put in place to ensure the safety of patients.

Every patient is screened for a fever and asked a series of questions to determine possible exposure to the virus. Patients are required to wear masks. Any patients with suspected COVID-19 are immediately isolated. The rigorous cleaning protocols that were put in place during the peak are also continuing. The staff has plenty of personal protective equipment to prevent the spread to other staff and patients.

“We are much more prepared than we were in March,” Dr. Unadkat said. “What allows me to sleep at night is knowing that we did it before successfully and we can do it again. We will be ready to support the needs of our community.”