NEW YORK CITY – The former chief executive officer of Doctors Hospital at Renaissance has been at the epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States, as the CEO of both Elmhurst and Queens hospitals.

Israel Rocha was born and raised in the Delta region of the Rio Grande Valley. He worked for Congressman Ruben Hinojosa before joining DHR.

Elmhurst was the hospital President Trump referenced when he watched TV and saw bodies being stored in freezer trucks parked outside the hospital. Trump grew up in Queens.

“I don’t think anybody, including myself, ever had any idea of the magnitude of what would come with COVID-19,” said Israel Rocha, in an exclusive interview with The Rio Grande Guardian.

“There were definitely preparations for pandemics, there were things we had to prepare for. But the size, scale, and enormity of what was experienced, I don’t think anybody had planned. Especially something that happened so quickly, so fast.”

Rochas has ben vice president of NYC Health + Hospitals since July 2016. Concurrently he has served as CEO of OneCity Health, a subsidiary of NYC Health + Hospitals that is focused on implementing a $1.2 billion transformative health program under the State of New York’s Delivery System Reform Incentive Payment program.

Rocha said Elmhurst usually averages 30 ICU beds. At the peak of the surge, hospital staff were taking care of 167 patients in ICU beds. At Queens, the average number of ICU beds is 15. At the height of the surge the hospital had 70-plus.

Asked how his staff coped, Rocha said: “I think that everyone still is working with a lot of adrenaline. I think everyone is trying to do everything they can to take care of patients. I think the evaluation of how truly difficult a toll has been will come later.”

Rocha said everyone working at Elmhurst and Queens has been challenged.

“What I can say is I have seen the providers, our teams, really step up to the challenge and really take care of patients, and come up with some amazing ways to be able to serve the community,” Rocha said.

“The effort, the work and the relentless displayed, everyone, anybody who walked into the hospital is a hero.”

Rocha said praise must also go to the military for the help they have provided. 

“We have definitely gotten some assistance working with the armed forces. The deployment from the military, working hand in hand, came at an opportune time. It has been a big help having them.”

Asked if his experience at DHR helped prepare him for the challenge posed during the current pandemic, Rocha said:

“It definitely has. You reach into all of your experiences to find answers. My entire work and upbringing, I relied on. During this time, there was not any stone unturned that was not utilized.”

Rocha said he is particularly pleased with the ideas staff came up with to keep loved ones informed about patients suffering with COVID-19. And with other hospitals, family members could not visit Elmhurst or Queens.

“I am most proud of the ways our staff meet the community’s needs during this time. They did an incredible job, starting brand new services, video chats, new service lines, hotlines. They were pioneers, with their innovation, ingenuity and persistence.”

Because Rocha has been incredibly busy for the past two and a half months, he was only able to give a short interview. Indeed, he had to reschedule it a number of times because he was called away to deal with emergencies at his hospitals.

Asked for any wrap-up remarks, Rocha urged the general public to continue to keep with social distancing guidelines and wear face masks.

“I want to again commend my staff. I am proud of Elmhurst and Queens hospitals, those facilities were definitely challenged and saw some very, very, serious conditions. 

“Our staff was asked to do incredible work. During that entire time they were able to render exceptional care to the patients. We had to be able to stretch out and quickly come up with new ways to render care to meet patient demand, to expand our capacity.”

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