Suffolk County Health Commissioner Dr. Gregson Pigott Discusses County’s Handling of Opioid Crisis and COVID-19 Pandemic
Suffolk County Health Commissioner Dr. Gregson Pigott spoke at LIMBA’s (Long Island Metro Business Action) virtual meeting on January 21. During his presentation, he described how Suffolk County was prepared to handle the opioid crisis and the COVID-19 pandemic. He also talked about his start in the agency, where he operated a community health program for persons of color and later served as Medical Director for Suffolk County Emergency Medical Services, overseeing the county’s emergency medical technicians.
“They are a very underappreciated group,” he said of the emergency medical personnel. “When you call to complain about a heart problem or a lung problem, the EMTs are always there. That is why I always try to give our emergency medical people the recognition they deserve.”
One of the issues his department had to deal with was the opioid crisis. When people were experiencing chronic pain, Dr. Pigott said, the doctors wrote prescriptions for these painkillers, not aware of their addictive qualities. After these opioids were pulled off the market, many people resorted to illegal drugs for their pain.
Dr. Pigott said there are medications to overcome drug addiction, such as methadone, which, he said, will help addicts in their recovery. One of his prior positions was as a Physician at a local methadone program in Huntington. “It’s not always about detox or staying sober,” he said. “Rather, it’s about needing medications to help you with your recovery.” When asked how long someone must be on methadone before they have fully recovered, he said, in his experience, the person’s age is the best predictor of maintaining sobriety without medication. He noted that those under the age of 30 may have an easier time managing the withdrawal that comes from tapering down the medication than older addicts.
The next topic turned to the COVID-19 pandemic. On March 8, 2020, the first COVID case was confirmed in Greenport. Dr. Pigott said the infected person was a local resident who did not travel and was not in contact with a lot of people.
The number of COVID cases in Suffolk quickly rose to 1,658 on April 10, 2020. Dr. Pigott said the pandemic put a strain on the local healthcare system. “Hospitals were overcrowded and overflowing with people who were seriously ill,” he said. “There was a lack of ventilators. We also couldn’t perform colonoscopies, lung scans and elective procedures.”
He also said the situation was worse at the local nursing homes. According to Dr. Pigott, there were approximately 4,100 Suffolk County residents who died as a result of COVID, of which there were 742 COVID confirmed deaths and 267 COVID presumed deaths at nursing homes, according to the New York State Department of Health. Funeral homes were overwhelmed, as they had to rent refrigeration trucks to store the bodies. “We lost a lot of people to COVID in 2020,” he said. “This was a situation we never want to see happen again.”
By the summer of 2020, the numbers started to go down, only to go up again in the fall, Dr. Pigott said. He said the surge in infections came during holidays, such as Halloween, Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day. The peak number was 863 on January 19, 2021. At the time, Americans were urged to get the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine. “These have been very effective,” he said of the vaccines. “We saw a significant reduction in hospitalizations, especially among seniors.” He added that the number of seniors over the age of 65 who were hospitalized went down by two-thirds after they were vaccinated.
Dr. Pigott said the two best ways to protect oneself against omicron or other strains of COVID are to get vaccinated and wear a mask. He recommended the N95 masks because they are the most effective against the virus, whereas neck gaiters, bandanas and cloth masks do not offer the same protection.
On January 3, the positivity rate in Suffolk hit a record high of 28.1%. On January 18, the positivity rate fell by half to 13.9%. Dr. Pigott noted the downward trend in positive cases, but added, “We’re not out of the woods yet.”
Dr. Pigott is Board Certified in Internal Medicine and is a Clinical Assistant Professor in Preventive Medicine at Stony Brook University. He is a graduate of Brown University, Brown University Medical School and Harvard School of Public Health. He completed his residency in Internal Medicine at Cambridge Hospital in 1997.