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BELLMORE HERALD 2020 PERSON OF THE YEAR

Anticipating ‘the good times ahead’

Health commissioner guides county through Covid

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Simply read Dr. Lawrence Eisenstein’s title — commissioner of the Nassau County Department of Health — and you know he’s had a hectic year.

Earlier this year, he spent more than 100 straight days at news conferences alongside County Executive Laura Curran, helping lead Nassau, which has more than 1.3 million residents, through the coronavirus pandemic. The Health Department’s “sole purpose,” Eisenstein said, is preventing people from getting sick.

“It’s been an around-the-clock battle since early February,” said Eisenstein, 48, of Bellmore.

Although it’s not the first major test of his career, it has perhaps been the most trying. Eisenstein has worked around the clock for months as he and his staff have coordinated with school districts, businesses, hospitals and residents — virtually everyone in Nassau — on lockdowns, quarantines, safety procedures, testing and more, which, at the start of the year, were entirely unfamiliar to most of us.

Eisenstein not only works at the county level, but is also connected and dedicated to the Bellmore community. His leadership has been tireless since the pandemic began to spread across the U.S. in March. It is because of this passionate, unwavering dedication that the Herald Life proudly names Eisenstein its 2020 Person of the Year.

Eisenstein has been with the Health Department since 2009, and has been commissioner since 2011. He recounted other difficult moments, such as sleeping on a cot between two firefighters when Hurricane Sandy ravaged Long Island in 2012, but none matched the tribulations of this year.

Nassau has reported nearly 75,000 coronavirus cases since March, and was one of the first areas in the country to receive the long-awaited Covid-19 vaccines in December. Early next year, the vaccine will likely be distributed widely to the public — a process that will largely overseen by Eisenstein and his staff.

“I dream of the good days,” he said. “I know we’ll get back there now that the vaccine is [here] . . . I’ve learned to appreciate the good times ahead.”

Eisenstein said he loves his work and believes in the personal satisfaction of helping others, like caring for patients on the verge of death until they recover — an experience he learned about firsthand at Winthrop University Hospital in Mineola, now NYU Langone, where he was a chief resident.

“In public health, you don’t get that experience as much,” Eisenstein said, “but you save many lives, maybe thousands."

When it comes to infection control, however, the number of lives saved is almost an impossible to know.

Eisenstein earned his medical degree at the Universidad Autónoma de Guadalajara in Mexico, and then completed his U.S. training at the New York Medical College in Westchester. At Winthrop, he later received a fellowship in infectious disease.

In 2009, he became Nassau County’s deputy health commissioner, before being promoted to the top spot in 2011. He has since helped bring the department to new, nationally recognized heights. In 2018 it was named the Local Health Department of the Year by the National Association of City and County Health Officials, which represents nearly 3,000 local governmental health departments throughout the nation.

The honor recognized Nassau’s network of providers, hospitals and community-based organizations that meet the needs of residents. In 2018 the department was also awarded Model Practice and Promising Practice awards, among many other accolades.

“Nassau County is so fortunate to have a leader of his caliber. He really is a leading force,” said Sarah Ravenhall, executive director of the New York State Association of County Health Officials, for which Eisenstein serves as a board member and chair of the disease control committee. “For the county to be recognized on a national level is so valuable to the community.”

Eisenstein, however, humbly attributes the accolades to his staff. “We’re only so successful because of” them, he said. “They’re so dedicated and smart and haven’t complained. It’s a very hard job, to hear from people who are sick, nervous and angry.”

“Now, living in a ‘pandemic world,’” Ravenhall added, “most people never realized how widespread public health can be.”

Within the Association of County Health Officials, Eisenstein has been in constant contact with other medical leaders in the state, sharing the best practices for stopping the virus’s spread. “He really exemplifies camaraderie,” Ravenhall said.

Eisenstein has also been in touch with elected, business and religious leaders across the county. “He’s plugged into all of that,” said Jerry Giuliano, a Health Department attorney and  a friend of Eisenstein’s. “He’s raised the excellence of the department on all levels.”

“I have been fortunate to have a leading public health expert by my side as we have navigated residents through this unprecedented pandemic,” Curran said in a statement. “Dr. Eisenstein is the right man for the job. We all know that Nassau has been hit particularly hard by Covid-19, but Dr. Eisenstein’s unique specialty and dedication to science has been a tremendous asset to our residents during this public health crisis.”

Eisenstein also oversaw the “massive undertaking” of coordinating safety procedures with the county’s 56 school districts, which comprise hundreds of schools. Constant disinfecting, social distancing, contact tracing and remote learning were all new practices that schools had to follow.

Because of the Health Department’s close work with school districts to craft solid plans for in-person reopenings, many students have been able to safely attend in-person classes — including those in the Bellmore-Merrick Central High School District, which Eisenstein’s two children attend.

“We really can’t thank him enough,” Central Superinten-dent John DeTommaso said. “It’s a big district, and we were able to open in full. He’s one of the reasons we’ve been able to do it.

“The expertise, efficiency, passion, kindness — he works through everything with you,” DeTommaso continued. “I could be on the phone with him at 6 a.m. after being on the phone with him at 11 p.m. the previous night. It was all something new to us, and in such a short amount of time, all of the Bellmore-Merrick school district’s’ teams became experts.”

At home in Bellmore, it’s not easy for Eisenstein to wind down — he always has a phone nearby in case of an urgent call — but he still finds ways to separate his professional life from his personal life. During the pandemic, he has lost 30 pounds thanks to a workout routine that he does nightly.

“It’s bizarre,” he laughed, “because I’m not someone who usually enjoys exercise. Now I feel like I need it.”

His family also recently welcomed a new puppy, and he tries to binge as many quality television shows as he can, he said. Meanwhile, his busy days with the pandemic continue, though, he said, the end is in sight.

“We’re closer to the end than we are to the beginning,” he noted.