8 Long Islanders combating the coronavirus

Sunken Meadown Beach on Long Island.
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City & State recognizes Long Island heroes that are helping their neighbors weather the crisis.

8 Long Islanders combating the coronavirus

These heroes are helping their neighbors weather the crisis.
November 22, 2020

Ivelisse Hernandez

Principal, Lido Elementary School

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Ivelisse Hernandez
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Jose Hernandez

Ivelisse Hernandez, the principal of Lido Elementary School, vividly recalls the overwhelming uncertainty at the start of the pandemic. In March, she oversaw the distribution of educational packets and hands-on resources to students in preparation for what she thought would be a shutdown of no more than a month. After realizing the situation would persist much longer than originally anticipated, Hernandez created a virtual classroom schedule, working with parents and staff members to distribute resources to students who were unable to pick up materials before the school closed. 

As she and her school adapted to the new normal of virtual education, Hernandez began creating as many virtual school activities and events as she could. Before the end of the past school year, Lido Elementary School had virtual morning announcements, virtual birthday celebrations – and even a virtual Lido Spirit Week, complete with a dance party.

“The truth of it is, we want our students in school. We really know that the best education is in-person education and having them here,” Hernandez says. “So we’re going to do everything we possibly can when they are virtual to give them that same exposure and experience.” 

Faced with the likelihood of schools across Long Island closing again as the second coronavirus surge takes hold, Hernandez said that Lido Elementary School is devoting the month of November to forging deeper relationships between teachers and students, and further acquainting students with their online resources. 

“Our slogan here is we are Lido strong and we are Lido proud, and we’re going to get through this together,” Hernandez says. 

Siela Bynoe

Nassau County Legislator

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Office Of Nassau County Legislator Siela Bynoe

When the Village of Westbury first began experiencing an uptick in coronavirus cases, Siela Bynoe, a Nassau County Legislator representing Westbury, spearheaded an initiative called Thankful Tuesdays to express gratitude for the community’s essential workers. 

Over the course of several weeks, Bynoe organized a caravan of local organizations to drive through different neighborhoods, playing music, honking horns, and showing their appreciation while passing by the homes of essential workers living in the community.

“Kids would be in the back, blowing horns and banging pots, and we would just celebrate our neighbors for all that they were doing during COVID,” says Bynoe. “A lot of our signs just gave a sense of gratitude – they had varying different messages, but the one that I think stayed consistent through the whole caravan was just encouraging them to stay strong.” 

In addition to Thankful Tuesdays, Bynoe, who also works as the executive director for the Town of Huntington Public Housing Authority, authored a bill, which was later passed unanimously, to waive listing fees through the end of the year for homeowners who paid their property taxes late. 

In her role as a Nassau County Legislator, Bynoe helped establish local testing sites by creating a partnership between the county and the federally qualified health centers. She also contracted with Island Harvest CEO Randi Shubin Dresner to provide food to over 25,000 families in the county. 

“I think the No. 1 takeaway was engaging local stakeholders very early into the process to ensure that we had a full, comprehensive understanding of the needs of the community,” says Bynoe, who also worked with the Long Island Nets basketball team to bus seniors to local polling sites to vote in the general election. 

In response to the disproportionate number of people of color who became seriously ill as a result of contracting COVID-19, Bynoe says her most recent initiative has been working with the Nassau County Industrial Development Agency to create a tax incentive program that would allow for commercial entities to reduce their carbon footprint and mitigate contaminants released into majority-minority communities.

Natasha Foskey

Certified Nursing Assistant, Parker Jewish Institute

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As the pandemic took hold in Long Island earlier this year, Parker Jewish Institute, where Natasha Foskey works as a certified nursing assistant, started to see an increase in COVID-19-positive patients and adapted accordingly. Among the preventative steps taken by the nursing home was having Foskey switch from performing her usual responsibilities to working exclusively with 20 coronavirus patients per day, monitoring their breathing and making sure they were as comfortable as possible. 

“I was happy that they actually picked me to do that,” says Foskey, who also went from working 8-hour shifts to 12-hour overnight shifts in the process.

Since experiencing an uptick in cases, Foskey says, Parker began implementing a number of precautions, including testing residents and staff members twice per week, carrying out temperature checks, separating coronavirus patients from noncoronavirus patients, preventing family members from entering the facility, distributing two to three N95 masks to every staff member each week, and ensuring that she had the appropriate personal protective equipment.

“You’d have this extra five pounds, four pounds weight on top of what you’re wearing every single day in and out of different patients’ rooms,” says Foskey. “So, that was a strain, that was something different compared to having a regular uniform.” 

Because Foskey worked so closely with sick residents, she had to take extra precautions to prevent the spread of the virus in her home as well. She would enter her home through the back door, removing her clothing and putting it into plastic bags before slipping on her robe and running straight to the shower. 

“Thank God it was warm,” she laughs.

The number of COVID-19-positive patients at the institute has decreased dramatically since August, and Foskey has returned to her pre-pandemic responsibilities, which involve assisting long-term care residents in completing their daily tasks and medical check-ins. 

In addition to working at Parker for the past nine years, Foskey has also been attending nursing school to become a registered nurse – a goal she plans to achieve in June when she graduates. 

Pedram Bral

Mayor, Village of Great Neck

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Maimonides Medical Center

With one foot in local politics and the other in the medical field, Dr. Pedram Bral was urging the community of Great Neck to wear masks weeks before the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the World Health Organization, and Gov. Andrew Cuomo began doing so.

“They thought it was actually going to increase the likelihood of contamination,” recalls Bral, who is also a full-time gynecologist at Brooklyn’s Maimonides Medical Center, one of the hardest-hit hospitals in New York. 

After two people tested positive for COVID-19 in the Village of Great Neck in March, Bral immediately issued a state of emergency. His first executive order was to close all gyms, restaurants, and places of assembly and worship; his second executive order was to mandate mask wearing. 

As a physician, Bral understood the need to act quickly to stop the spread of COVID-19, but he says he was met with resistance from the state government. In response, he wrote multiple letters to Cuomo stressing the importance of wearing face coverings, and created an initiative to distribute masks at local grocery stores. 

“It took about three weeks or so before the state came with the same recommendation,” Bral says. “I do believe that a lot of people did get infected because of a lack of wearing a face covering.” 

In order to manage his responsibilities as both mayor and physician, Bral delegated to the staff at the village to carry out his local initiatives and forged partnerships with the surrounding villages to better take advantage of each other’s services.

“Unfortunately, one of the things that happened in New York state, there was a wide paintbrush that everything was painted with, and I think we missed the opportunity of addressing different needs in different areas,” Bral recalls. 

With New York nearing a second coronavirus wave, Bral has urged people living in Great Neck to avoid large gatherings, especially weddings. “We knew that there was going to be some kind of uptick because when you start relaxing the restrictions, which we all expected, obviously people start relaxing their guards,” he explains. 

Patrick Ryder

Police Commissioner, Nassau County Police Department

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Nassau County Police Department

Nassau County Police Commissioner Patrick Ryder has handled a lot during his decadeslong career in law enforcement – but nothing compared to what he faced when the coronavirus pandemic ripped through Long Island this spring. 

“It was a challenging time like I’ve never seen before in my life – and I’ve been through a lot of crazy stuff in 37 years” in law enforcement, Ryder recalls.

In March, Ryder was tapped by Nassau County Executive Laura Curran to lead the community through the pandemic as an incident commander for the Office of Emergency Management. Less than two weeks later, the Nassau community hit its peak pandemic numbers, with nearly 600 coronavirus patients hospitalized and around 250 daily coronavirus-related ambulance calls, he recalls. 

In his role as incident commander, Ryder was tasked with allocating and acquiring personal protective equipment, body bags and refrigeration trucks, all while continuing to carry out his responsibilities as police commissioner of the nation’s 13th-largest police department. During the pandemic’s peak, he attended two briefings every day to discuss new coronavirus cases and deaths, the status of the county’s 11 hospitals, and the number of patients on ventilators. 

As restrictions were implemented across the county, police officers became responsible for ensuring restaurants and businesses complied with the rules, while also continuing to enforce necessary safety precautions and policies. When responding to emergency calls, Ryder says, officers tried to keep contact with community members to a minimum. Police medics, who wore more personal protective gear, were the only ones to have direct contact with people showing coronavirus symptoms. 

So far, only 223 officers and civilians out of the 3,600 people who make up the police department’s staff have tested positive for COVID-19, Ryder says. When an employee tests positive, the department conducts its own internal contact tracing, working under the assumption they contracted coronavirus while working. 

“No matter when you got sick, we gave you the presumption that it happened at work,” says Ryder. “I needed my cops to know that when you come to work, I got your back. If you get sick, we will cover you and your family. You can go home; it’s on our sick time.”

Randi Shubin Dresner

President and CEO, Island Harvest Food Bank

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When supermarkets across the country were drained of their supplies by anxious consumers during the early weeks of the coronavirus pandemic, food banks such as Island Harvest also took a hit to their stockpiles. 

“Instantly most of our, or all of our food donations dried up. Supermarkets were overrun with customers coming through, and the supply chain completely dried up,” says Randi Shubin Dresner. She knew the 28-year-old hunger-relief organization, which relied heavily on donations from supermarkets, wholesalers, and distributors, would have to pivot in a different direction in order to continue serving the Long Island community. 

“Our organization has changed dramatically. I think that we are probably never going back to the way we were beforehand,” Dresner says. “We are carving out a new organizational structure, new organizational protocols, and programs as well.” 

Within a few weeks, Island Harvest changed its model from one that relied on donations for 85% of its supply to increasing its purchase of supplies by 500%, she says. To keep up with the increase in need across the community, the organization also increased staffing by 51% and has taken on 1,700 new volunteers since the beginning of the pandemic. 

With a new approach to how the organization operates, Dresner and Island Harvest established many new programs, including partnering with schools to supplement student meal programs, creating a summer meals program – which provided over 165,000 meals to children facing food insecurity – and opening a food box building program that has already assembled over 80,000 food boxes. In the Town of Hempstead specifically, Island Harvest was awarded a grant to carry out home deliveries to people impacted by the pandemic.

“As a leader, you need to be involved, you need to roll up your sleeves,” says Dresner, who never stopped going into the office and working in the community. “I was in the field working alongside my team, understanding what the needs were and looking to see how we could pivot and respond so that our response was pinpointed and strategic.” 

Carrie Gallagher 

Regional Director, New York State Department of Environmental Conservation

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Carrie Gallagher was one of many people who expanded their job responsibilities in order to guide New Yorkers through the coronavirus pandemic. She was tapped by Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s office to lead the implementation of the state-run COVID-19 test sites at Jones Beach and in Suffolk County, on Long Island. 

“When I was signed on to be regional director of DEC, I never thought I would be an incident commander for a global pandemic test site,” she says.

Gallagher remembers that one of the biggest challenges she encountered at the beginning of the pandemic was acquiring enough personal protective equipment and COVID-19 test kit components. 

“The first month, that was a huge challenge, because of course globally there was a shortage of the PPE and the different components of the test kits,” she says. 

But after two months, PPE became more readily available and the New York Department of Health established its own test kit and test kit protocol that facilitated the testing process. 

“Under Gov. Cuomo’s leadership, he really tapped into all of the state agency resources to kind of have all agencies pull together to implement this mission of ensuring that anyone who needs or wants a test for COVID could go to one of these state sites and get it for free,” she says. Although the testing sites now see around 250 people per day, Gallagher says that during the peak of the pandemic there were days when they were testing over 1,000 people. So far, the two sites she oversees have provided over 67,600 tests for people on Long Island.

Looking toward the future, Gallagher says she has started implementing a winter safety plan for the testing sites, which includes lining up snow plow contracts and working to introduce heating to the outdoor testing tents. 

Marilu Basile

Mobile Program Coordinator, Long Island Cares

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In January, when the first mentions of the coronavirus were just beginning to appear in the news, Marilu Basile was asked to work as a mobile program coordinator with a new Long Island Cares program called Supporting Our Seniors. By March, when the pandemic began hitting the Long Island community in full force, the program had already enrolled 1,500 seniors – and it hasn’t stopped growing since. 

Currently serving over 2,000 people within the community, the program, which started with distributing food in community centers at different senior housing complexes, has now shifted to a model that requires Basile and about 30 volunteers to deliver food directly to each senior’s door. They knock on over 150 doors in a day and distribute food three times per week.

“As we’re delivering door-to-door, we’re not allowed to go inside anyone’s apartments. We have to wear our masks and our gloves,” says Basile. “But when we get to their doors and we ring their bells, many seniors come to the door and they want us to stand there for a little while and say hello because they’re not socializing like they normally do.” 

Along with distributing food, Basile says that she and her volunteers were also able to hand out masks after Long Island Cares was given 10,000 masks, of which 2,000 were dedicated to Supporting Our Seniors. 

In addition to coordinating Supporting Our Seniors, Basile says she recently began reaching out to senior centers in North Hempstead, where Long Island Cares introduced a drive-through pantry in October. 

“The need is still there, and it’s going to continue growing. As there are more seniors and baby boomers getting older and medications are expensive, there’s a lot of choices that the seniors have to make,” says Basile. “Long Island Cares does not want them to worry about the basics.” 

Correction: In Dr. Pedram Bral's profile, village staff carried out his initiatives; an earlier version of this post misrepresented who carried out those initiatives.

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Madeline Lyskawa
is a former City & State editorial intern.
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