NEW YORK CITY — As some Americans including pockets of practicing Christians raise skepticism about how much of a threat the new coronavirus poses to their lives, a doctor leading the Samaritan's Purse coronavirus response at a field hospital in Central Park warned Thursday that “it’s serious,” as residents welcomed the evangelical Christian humanitarian aid organization.
While urging people not to be hysterical or dismissive of the disease, Dr. K. Elliott Tenpenny said Americans need to treat the coronavirus as “a serious disease.”
“This is not something to think this is the end of the world, but it is not something that’s also to dismiss,” Tenpenny told The Christian Post at the site of the field hospital Thursday. “It’s serious. It’s a serious disease. It’s not the end of the world. We’re going to make it through this, but it is serious and anyone that says differently I don’t believe they’re speaking truthfully.”
Tenpenny’s warning comes as White House Coronavirus Task Force Coordinator Dr. Deborah Birx urged every state to begin practicing recommended social distancing guidelines after highlighting that data on the spread of the virus indicates not everyone is treating the virus with the seriousness it deserves.
"We're only as strong as every community, every county, every state, every American following the guidelines to a T," Birx said Thursday. "And I can tell by the curve (of infections) and as it is today that not every American is following it."
Many Americans, like Brooklyn resident David Self, who traveled to Manhattan to observe the Samaritan’s Purse 68-bed field hospital that opened Wednesday adjacent to Mount Sinai Hospital in Central Park’s East Meadow, count themselves among the skeptics.
“I came from Brooklyn. I was here yesterday to just to check it out because the media is saying the hospitals are overwhelmed but I’m just not seeing that personally. I’ve been to three different hospitals: Lenox, Brooklyn, this one. It’s very quiet. Came by here yesterday, there’s no patients,” Self said. “I think this is being hyped beyond what it actually is.”
He said he was happy that the Franklin Graham-led Samaritan’s Purse had come to assist with the coronavirus crisis but added, “I don’t see what the problem is … there doesn’t seem to be anything to help out for.”
At least 245,573 Americans have been infected by the coronavirus and all states but Wyoming have reported deaths. New York is reporting more than 83,000 positive cases of the coronavirus and more than 45,000 of those have been reported in New York City alone. Gov. Andrew Cuomo said Thursday that at least 2,468 people have died from the virus statewide and that hospitals will run out of ventilators in about six days.
"It's like watching a slow-moving hurricane across the country, where you know the path that it's taking," Cuomo said.
Self insisted Thursday that he didn’t see evidence of that alarm while waiting outside the Samaritan’s Purse field hospital and across the city generally.
“These guys are just assembling furniture, it’s very sleepy. There are no ambulances streaming in and out of here. Where’s the pandemic? Where is it?” he asked.
When he was told that there were patients inside the newly opened field hospital being housed in a cluster of white tents on the lawn, Self still wasn’t convinced.
“I stayed for 30 minutes at the emergency room exit of Mount Sinai over here. No one came in or out, so it’s not like a steady stream of ambulances and even if there were, is it a gunshot wound? Is it a stabbing? Is it a heart attack? Like how many of these are strep throat? All of a sudden no one has the common cold? No one has the flu? Everyone has coronavirus?” he asked.
“I think there’s just a lot of questions. What I see with my own eyes does not match the hysteria. There’s a big discrepancy. Everyone’s wearing masks, staying home. It’s a gorgeous day. I’m going to find out for myself what’s going on. … I work in reality television. I know how to create a story that’s not there,” he added.
Tenpenny told CP that the field hospital had only just started receiving patients Wednesday afternoon and already they had 20 patients in the unit and expected to be close to half their capacity by Thursday.
“You wouldn’t see a lot of activity because it’s all inside those tents. All you see is somebody pop out and pop back in,” he said. “There’s a lot of activity inside. All of the people getting the care are inside those tents. The nurses and doctors giving the care are inside those tents.”
He said the 68 beds offered by the facility includes 10 ICU beds and had approximately 70 medical facility staff and about 80 staff members in general. Franklin Graham recently issued an appeal for more Christian healthcare workers to help join the effort in New York City and Tenpenny said the appeal was to ensure they could “continue to help New York City even to a greater degree potentially elsewhere.”
A release from the organization said Samaritan’s Purse worked closely with the Mount Sinai Health System, city and state officials, as well as the Federal Emergency Management Agency to deploy the field hospital to help meet the needs of local hospitals that are facing an unprecedented wave of sick patients.
Tenpenny said even with the help Samaritan’s Purse has committed, there’s still a struggle.
“Mount Sinai says ‘thank you guys. Praise God you’re over there but we are still struggling.’ And so if there’s anything else that we can do, we’re not committed to anything [else at the moment] but we’re looking at what we could possibly do to help more,” he said.
“The long game is New York has needs. We don’t know how long those needs are going to last. It’s not Samaritan’s Purse in the battle, it’s all of New York City, all of the world right now in the battle against this COVID-19. We’re happy to do our part and we are here to serve the needs. So we’re watching and waiting and watching closely as time goes on to see how long those needs last. I don’t know how long it will be. I don’t know how long exactly New York will have those needs yet. Neither does anyone else. That’s the challenge,” he said.
The Central Park Emergency Field Hospital opened less than two weeks after an identical unit was opened in northern Italy.
Tenpenny said this is the first time Samaritan’s Purse has run two field hospitals of the magnitude they have at one time.
“Usually it’s one after a disaster, an earthquake, a war or whatever, but now it has two in two very geographically different places,” he said.
Amid the pandemic, the evangelical Christian aid agency also reports how well they have been received by New York City.
“The reception of the site here has been nothing short of phenomenal. We’ve got people just pitching in and helping. We’ve had people just come and just giving food. Here’s food to eat. We’ve had every utility company, every government agency, though they might have been here trying to help this happen quicker,” Tenpenny said, pointing to a line power company Con Edison ran to connect the field hospital to the grid.
He highlighted the work of Mount Sinai, the NYPD, the FDNY and the NYC Department of Parks and Recreation in helping to get things up and running.
“Everyone was pitching in to do their part to be able to provide this care to the New York people,” he said.
Integrative therapist Gina Cunningham said while there might be some LGBT advocates in the city who are wary of Samaritan’s Purse's conservative Christian values, it shouldn’t be allowed to get in the way of the work they are doing.
“I feel like it’s all hands on deck. There’ll be plenty of time to talk about general perspectives. I feel like that’s trivializing to someone who is LGBTQ. I do not trivialize that, but right now we need all the help we can get,” Cunningham said.
“Maybe that can be the foundation for having more expansive conversations and considerations for everybody in the future. Right now, if this is who can offer help,” she said, then helping people survive trumps that issue right now.
Tenpenny also sought to allay concerns about Samaritan’s Purse by highlighting how their work is driven by their faith.
“Our faith is the reason we do this. Our faith in Jesus Christ compels us to help those who are in the ditch in life and that’s New York City right now. That’s because of this COVID-19 outbreak. Also our faith says you don’t discriminate, period,” he said. “You take care of people regardless of race, ethnicity, sexual orientation. It doesn’t matter. We've been all over the world taking care of people. I’ve deployed to half a dozen Muslim nations. You take care of anyone.”
Cunningham, who works with older adults and was in the city on 9/11, said the impact of the coronavirus on the city is similar in a pivotal way.
“It’s such a slow unfolding. We saw it coming so it’s very different from 9/11. It’s got some similarities in that it unifies people across all cultures. … I think it’s similar in that it’s pivotal. There’s going to be a before and an after,” she said.
“Listen to the scientists. Listen to the medical professionals. Listen to what they’re saying because they’re on the frontlines. And they’ve been warning us about this for several months now and every decision that we make about social distancing and taking their very sage advice seriously,” she said in parting advice for America. “Every choice we make to do that or not do that we can be hurting ourselves. We have our lives in our own hands but also other peoples’ lives.”