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Guest Viewpoints

Opinion: Constantinides on the Need for More Hospitals in Queens

NEW YORK – New York City Council Members Costa Constantinides shared his thoughts on the need for more hospitals in Queens, noting that in the last 20 years, the borough has lost five hospitals. The article also appeared in the Queens Eagle and follows:

Queens needs more hospitals. It is a matter of life and death.

We have become the epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic largely because we simply don’t have enough hospital beds to deal with the crisis.

Queens would be America’s fourth-largest city with 2.3 million residents, yet we only have eight hospitals — or one for 287,500 people. The borough has lost five hospitals in the last 20 years, a policy that benefited real estate developers but endangered everyone else. We are now living in a healthcare nightmare that’s left thousands of mostly black, brown, and immigrant neighbors dead.

To pretend like things will go back to normal after this crisis would be a disservice to the memory of more than 2,000 Queens residents COVID-19 has killed so far.

This pandemic has, however, presented us with two pathways. First, we can accelerate the course we’ve been on to gut services to our most at-risk communities. Or, we can create a new Queens that corrects the systemic inequities this outbreak has exposed.

We can build a new Queens that’s fairer, with new, state-of-the-art hospitals to serve places like Jamaica, Corona, Jackson Heights, and East Elmhurst.

Generations of racial, economic, and environmental policies got us to the point at which those neighborhoods are statistically more at risk of contracting COVID-19 — especially when it comes to pre-existing conditions like asthma. But the final safety net should have been emergency care at hospitals.

Only it wasn’t there. Not enough of it, anyway.

This all started decades ago, when post-Fiscal Crisis leaders sentenced our healthcare system to death by 1,000 cuts. Then, in the mid-2000s, the Pataki administration took an even more proactive approach by identifying what hospitals we can close outright (Reminder: the head of that commission thinks everything is fine in Queens right now and we have enough beds). Finally, the walls came metaphorically crashing in at Forest Hills’ Parkway Hospital in 2008. The following year, when H1N1 made its way through Queens, we said goodbye to St. John’s and Mary Immaculate hospitals.

Who benefitted when more than 600 beds disappeared over a two year span? Not the central and southeast Queens residents who relied on them. Surely not the hospitals who absorbed more patients who deserved quality healthcare. Absolutely not a gunshot victim south of Hillside Avenue, who’s likely to not survive because the closest trauma center is more than three miles away.

No, only developers profited when they cashed in from prime real estate that hit the auction block. Almost all of Queens’ shuttered hospitals have become or were eyed to be redeveloped. That was certainly true for the Queens Boulevard site of St. John’s, which was flipped into a 150-unit luxury rental project a year after it sold for $50 million in 2013.

Sadly, this has become the twisted reality of New York City but nowhere are the effects felt more than in Queens. What’s happened at Elmhurst Hospital will go down as a dark chapter in our history. We are so short on healthcare space that the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center, where billionaires flock in the awls of every summer to rub elbows with celebrities, is now a field hospital to handle the overflow. Frontline workers from bus drivers to grocery store workers suit up every day to put their own lives at risk, wondering if there will be a hospital bed for them if they get sick.

I knew this long before my fever spiked to well above 100 degrees a few weeks ago. My father died en route to Manhattan because the Astoria hospital across the street from his apartment wasn’t able to properly treat stroke patients at the time. I’m proud to have been part of the Council Queens Delegation that helped fund a state-of-the-art stroke center at that hospital.

We’ve been bold before. I know we can be again. Governor Al Smith responded to a devastating 1923 fire at a Wards Island hospital with $50 million that both restored decrepit facilities and built new ones. Government at its best responds to deeper issues brought out in times of crisis — in hopes that no one suffers in the future. At its worst, it laments normalcy by aimlessly trying to go backward.

We have that opportunity again. When the curve flattens and we begin to map out what our new Queens looks like, let’s guarantee it builds much-need hospitals for southeast and central Queens.

Costa Constantinides represents the New York City Council’s 22nd District and is a candidate for Queens Borough President.

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