With New York City at the epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic, the city can count on a unique asset: It’s the home of an academic center on disaster preparedness founded by an American Jewish expert, Dr. Irwin Redlener.
In 2003, Redlener — who is a special adviser to New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio on the coronavirus crisis — established the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University, which he continues to direct. At the same time, Redlener is using his hard-won skill set from decades of emergencies to help the city cope with perhaps the biggest disaster of our lifetimes.
“It’s been an extremely challenging time for New York,” Redlener told The Times of Israel in a phone interview. “People have referred [to the city] as the epicenter in the US… The hospitals are already quite overwhelmed.”
“It’s hard to predict when it will peak in New York,” he said. “We don’t really have trend lines yet on when it’s going to start settling down. We’ll be living with this for quite some time.”
Redlener said that he began thinking about the coronavirus in December, after the first case was reported in Wuhan, China, and has tracked the news since then. He said that US President Donald Trump “really just lost a big opportunity to start getting test kits out there in the country,” adding, “I think the biggest problem is the failure of hospitals and the health care system to be ready for this. They knew it was coming.”
Redlener said the sight of a refrigerator truck used to store bodies outside a city hospital is “a pretty gruesome sight… Who would have thought it would come to this in a place like New York?”
At City Hall, Redlener is part of a scientific advisory committee. “We talk about a lot of things with the mayor and his people,” he said, “working with some of the other scientists and physicians on what the best practices are going to be.”
Redlener’s expertise includes disasters from 9/11 to Hurricane Katrina to pandemics, and he has authored a book on America’s unpreparedness for mega-disasters. A pediatrician, he is concerned about the impact of such crises on America’s children, and he has advocated for underprivileged youth through the Children’s Health Fund, which he co-created with his wife Karen Redlener and singer-songwriter Paul Simon.
Reflecting the strain on the New York hospitals, on March 30 the USNS Comfort docked in New York to provide extra beds for patients who do not have the virus. The Navy hospital ship has often helped deliver humanitarian aid in the past, and was deployed in New York after the 9/11 attacks in 2001. By providing the extra beds, the Comfort aims to take the pressure off local hospitals as they struggle to accommodate COVID-19 patients.
While Redlener said that the 1,000-bed Comfort was “obviously a tremendously dramatic visual,” he stressed that details are just as important as drama. He urged immediate testing for “every single person on the ship, every crew member, member of the staff,” and said, “We have to make sure it does not become a situation similar [to] some of the cruise lines, where people are trapped in the ship and get positive [test] results.”
As reflected in the deployment of the Comfort, disaster response involves the city, state and federal government. Redlener recalls working with Gov. Andrew Cuomo in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy in 2012. He said that it was “great” to work with the governor, who was then in his first term.
Today, Redlener said, “I think, fortunately, the city and state are getting along well, coordinating plans.” He said that Cuomo has “been pretty impressive [in] the entire experience… He and the mayor cooperate very well.”
Redlener can’t say the same for the relationship between New York’s city and state governments and the nation’s executive branch.
“I think President Trump continues to be talking about the preposterous idea that somehow the state and city do not know what they need,” Redlener said. “He keeps questioning the needs expressed by the city.” He called the president’s recent consideration of a mandatory quarantine for New York “kind of an inappropriate suggestion” and said that he was happy the president decided not to go through with the idea.
He cited a disappointment in “the messaging from the White House. Till recently, the president said one thing and his people said something else… It’s a problem in terms of people losing confidence in federal government,” said Redlener.
Decades of crises managed
Figuring out the logistics of an emergency response is something that Redlener has become experienced in over the decades. During that span, he’s advocated for underprivileged communities and worked at the highest levels of government, including in the White House under president Bill Clinton. In addition to his current position as director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness, now housed at Columbia’s Earth Institute, Redlener is also a professor at the university in health policy and management, and clinical pediatrics.
Asked whether his Jewish background has influenced his career trajectory, he said, “If you asked my late mother, she would say absolutely. It’s hard for me to answer. I don’t know.”
A Brooklyn native, Redlener describes himself as having “long experience working with under-served communities and places.” This includes working with his wife and Simon on the Children’s Health Fund (he is now its president emeritus), which he said grew out of their shared desire to aid homeless children in New York.
He calls fellow New Yorker Simon “very generous with his time” and “a brilliant guy, an icon of our culture.” Wife Karen Redlener is credited on the fund’s website as having designed the prototype of its mobile clinics that have grown to serve 300,000 children nationwide over more than 30 years.
Redlener said that when he founded the National Center for Disaster Preparedness in 2003 he was a lone voice in the field. “When I first started,” he recalled, “it was a pretty lonely place. There was not much going on. Since then, there have been a number of other academic centers and programs around the country… They are making a contribution, helping the country be more prepared.”
Toward that goal, Redlener wrote the 2006 book “Americans at Risk: Why We Are Not Prepared for Megadisasters and What We Can Do Now.”
“It’s still 100 percent relevant,” he said, lamenting that in the intervening years, “all kinds of things could have been done better” in terms of preparedness.
Asked about today’s crisis and the role of the New York’s ultra-Orthodox population, Redlener said, “As long as they don’t congregate, there won’t be a particular risk. They need to follow public health guidelines that we all need to follow. That goes for all people whatever the affiliation or groups they belong to. I think the ultra-Orthodox community has been pretty compliant. We’ve had some issues around measles and so on, but I think everybody gets the idea.”
“We need to all band together,” Redlener said, “do the right thing, not endanger ourselves or vulnerable residents in a time of pandemic.”