Thursday, September 3, 2009

This Week's Forum South and West

City Announces New Swine Flu Strategy

Focuses on Keeping Public Schools Open

By Conor Greene

The city’s strategy to fight the expected breakout of swine flu this fall includes offering free vaccinations to all elementary school children and providing the public with information regarding the number of cases reported in a specific school.

The plan, announced on Tuesday by city officials at Gracie Mansion, includes an “open school policy” that seeks to slow spread of the H1N1 virus and avoid mass closures. Mayor Bloomberg sought to assure residents that the city is better prepared to deal with an outbreak this fall after hospitals were overwhelmed this past spring and parents complained about a lack of information.

A recent White House study predicted that as many as 90,000 Americans could die as a result of a new H1N1 outbreak, with 60 million to 120 million becoming sick and hospital emergency rooms overwhelmed. However, the mayor on Tuesday said signs suggest a more “moderate” outbreak than predicted in the panel’s report.

“There is no indication the virus will be more virulent than what we experienced in May and June, but we must have and do have contingency plans in place in case the virus becomes more widespread or more severe in its symptoms,” said Mayor Bloomberg. “In situations like this, it’s natural to imagine the worst-case scenario, but all signs at this point in time do point to an outbreak that will be much more moderate.”

The city’s strategy to fight the spread of swine flu, particularly in schools, centers on measures “designed to slow transmission while classes and activities continue,” according to a press release. Aspects of the plan include getting children vaccinated, keeping them home when sick and following basic procedures such as thoroughly and frequently washing hands.

Once a vaccine for H1N1 becomes available this fall, the city plans to distribute it to health care providers and offer it for free to school-aged students. For elementary-aged students, the vaccine will be available within each school building, while older students will have to travel to central sites within each borough. Parental consent will be required before students are vaccinated.

The city also plans to use a central database to allow school nurses to report the number of students seen for influenza-like illness during each day. A daily public report will be posted on listing schools reporting five or more cases the previous day. The daily report will also show the previous day’s absentee rate for every public school – though the city stresses that it is “important to understand that absenteeism is not by itself a measure of influenza activity.”

The third aspect of the city’s plan is an influenza-prevention campaign in each of its 1,500 public schools. Signs and classroom instruction will stress the importance of covering coughs and washing hands, restrooms will be continually stocked with soap and paper towels and parents will get written reminders to keep their children home when they’re sick. That message will be reinforced if a nurse sees five or more cases of flu-like illness in one day.

If a school experiences “excessive influenza activity” – defined as four percent of the student body (at least 15 children) being seen by a school nurse on a single day – a doctor or supervising nurse will visit the school to assess the situation. The supervisor will determine whether the school has students whose health conditions place them at high risk of influenza complications and may “recommend additional safety measures.” However, school closure will only be considered “as a last resort,” the city announced.

“Today is the first of what will be many efforts to keep New Yorkers informed about what we are doing to prepare for the return of the H1N1 and seasonal flu,” said Mayor Bloomberg. “We can’t predict this year’s flu season, but we can make sure that city government is fully prepared for whatever happens.” It was noted that 15 separate groups worked over the summer to create a strategic citywide response to the expected outbreak.

Still, the mayor’s announcement was met with concern from some local elected officials, including Councilwoman Elizabeth Crowley (D-Middle Village), who is worried the vaccinations won’t be available in time. She also argued that outside nurses should be hired to administer the vaccine, instead of having school nurses shoulder that responsibility as currently planned. “Flu season officially starts today and we still do not know [by] who andwhere the H1N1 vaccinations will be administered,” she said.

Nick Comaianni, president of Community Education Council 24, said city officials should consider closing entire school buildings if an outbreak is detected. “Obviously they will have to use judgment, but if you’re trying to prevent something from spreading, the best option is to close the school for a few days and let the germs die,” he said. “If you have cases out there within a school population, then I agree the schools must be closed… Once you see it spreading, I think the best thing is to close the schools.”

On the national level, President Barack Obama was briefed by cabinet members including Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius and Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano. “I don’t want anybody to be alarmed, but I do want everyone to be prepared,” he said.

The virus killed about 500 Americans after first emerging in April and sickened more than 1 million individuals across the nation. Worldwide, more than 2,000 people died during the initial outbreak. Development of the vaccine is still underway and officials expect it to be available to the public by October. While it is taken on a voluntary basis, the president said it is “strongly recommended.”

“We know that we usually get a second, larger wave of these flu viruses in the fall, and so response plans have been put in place across all levels of government,” added President Obama. “Our plans and decisions are based on the best scientific information available, and as the situation changes, we will continue to update the public.” The president also reminded Americans to take basic precautions, including staying home if sick and frequently washing hands. “I know it sounds simple, but it’s important and it works,” he said.

Locally, borough hospitals are making preparations to handle the expected influx of new patients this fall. Michael Hinck, director of public relations for MediSys Health Network, which runs Jamaica, Flushing and Peninsula hospitals in Queens, said preparation efforts have been ongoing after receiving as much as double the typical patient-load on certain days last spring.

“We’ve been expecting this since we were really at the center of the last outbreak. Our expectations are to see an increase,” said Hinck, who noted that two area hospitals closed earlier this year, just before the initial swine flu outbreak hit the area. “It put a strain on us, but luckily we have a long history of disaster preparedness so we quickly devised a plan. Like in the spring, we want the public to know we are prepared and will do everything we can to meet the needs.”

To prepare for the higher patient levels, Jamaica Hospital has added 40 additional in-patient beds and has plans to reallocate additional space for swine flu patients if necessary, added Hinck. Officials are also ready to be in constant communication with city and state health officials to monitor spread of the virus. “We’re going to manage all aspects of this situation and make sure we will be able to have continuity of care in other operations so other areas don’t suffer,” he said.

Woodhaven Blvd Safety Study Continues

Due for Release by Mid 2010, Public Meeting This Fall

By Conor Greene

City Department of Transportation officials met with community leaders last week to discuss the ongoing study of Woodhaven Boulevard, which is intended to prevent traffic backups and accidents along a 3.2 mile stretch of the congested roadway.

The meeting, held last Tuesday, was not open to the media or public. However, a DOT spokesman said a public session will be announced for later this fall, at which point specific details and proposals will be unveiled. Long term improvements being considered by the city include reconfiguring intersections, connecting discontinuous service roads and dedicating lanes exclusively for rapid bus service.

Several local officials who attended the meeting are urging the DOT to move ahead with immediate steps to increase safety along the study area, which stretches from Queens Boulevard to Liberty Avenue. According to the DOT, the study has been delayed because the department needed to obtain approval to expand the scope of the study to include additional intersections at the southern end in Ozone Park.

“The people living and working around Woodhaven Boulevard have waited too long,” said Councilman Eric Ulrich (R-Ozone Park). “Traffic along this corridor is an absolute nightmare. The DOT needs to take immediate action to implement some of the recommendations we discussed.”

Frank Gulluscio, district manager of Community Board 6, agreed that it is “taking too long” for the city to implement at least some of the safety measures. “There are things that can be done immediately and don’t have to wait for another capital plan. I’m talking about simple things such as looking at the bottlenecks, the traffic islands, signage that doesn’t cost too much.”

One thing Gulluscio would like to see added to the study is an increased emphasis on making the area “greener” to help offset the increases in pollution. “If there is going to be more traffic, what about the emissions?” he said. “There should be something in that plan regarding the environmental impact and the medians should be looked at.”

In a statement, Councilwoman Elizabeth Crowley (D-Middle Village), who was represented at the meeting by her chief of staff, also called on the DOT to enact immediate reforms along Woodhaven Boulevard. “I understand the need to conduct the proper investigation and now that the study is complete, it’s time to start implementing the changes to alleviate traffic delays, especially around rush hour, and to protect people,” she said.

A DOT spokesman said that other “preliminary ideas being discussed” include signal timing modification, turn restrictions, refuge islands and high-visibility crosswalks. The DOT’s final report is expected to be released in mid-2010 with implementation of safety measures to follow.

One aspect of the plan that is likely going to be a hot topic of debate is the idea of replacing a parking lane along the boulevard with a lane dedicated for Bus Rapid Transit service. “Some people might be up for that, but to take out a lane on Woodhaven Boulevard concerns me,” said Gulluscio.

According to the DOT, there were a total of 495 accidents along the 3.2 mile stretch from 2004 to 2006, the latest figures the city used in the study. Still, despite the delays in implementing safety measures, and the increase in traffic, Gulluscio maintains that making the boulevard safer for motorists and pedestrians is achievable. “I don’t believe it is a lost cause by any means. We have a goal to make it better and we have to improve the quality of life,” he said. “I’m by no means giving this up.”

Cop Car Strikes Pedestrian on Queens Blvd

Witnesses Claim Unmarked Car Ran Red Light

A 47-year-old Sunnyside man was struck by an unmarked police car while crossing Queens Boulevard with his girlfriend last week.

Witnesses told the Daily News that Evelio Villa and his girlfriend, Yanira Lopez, 55, had the green light when they started to cross the boulevard at 44th Street in Sunnyside last Thursday at about 8:30 p.m. “This guy was flying. He went like a bat out of hell,” a 23-year-old Woodside man who witnessed the collision told the newspaper. “There were no screeching brakes, no tire marks, nothing.”

However, NYPD Commissioner Raymond Kelly told reporters that Villa was “highly intoxicated” and “tried to run across the intersection.” He added that the driver of the vehicle, which was from the 109th Precinct and was responding to a call to assist an officer, slammed his face against the steering wheel and was taken to a local hospital to be treated for shock. He said investigators were looking at videotapes to determine whether the car ran a red light as witnesses insisted.

Villa, an unemployed construction worker, was listed in stable condition at Elmhurst Hospital Center, where he was treated for a fractured shoulder.

The Forum Newsgroup/photo by ROBERT STRIDIRON

Crime Roundup: Knifepoint Robbery and Trouble at a Local Strip Club

Brooklyn Men Charged in Knifepoint Attack

Two Brooklyn men are due back in court on Tuesday to face robbery, menacing and weapons possession charges after allegedly robbing a man at knifepoint in Ridgewood.

Edgardo Marquez, 23, of Bushwick and Charles Roberts, 22, of Bedford-Stuyvesant, were arraigned on August 25 in Queens Criminal Court after being arrested in connection with the robbery of a man on 61st Street near 60th Lane at about 4:30 that morning.

According to police, the trouble started when the victim tripped and fell while walking near that intersection. Roberts pointed a knife at his chest and demanded money while Marquez, armed with a meat clever, acted as a lookout. The victim handed over $20, which Roberts pocketed before the pair fled the scene.

The victim immediately reported the incident and members of the 104th Precinct responded to the scene. A short time later, Officer Eric Velez spotted the pair just several blocks away in St. Felix Park (Evergreen Park), still in possession of the stolen money and knives used in the robbery, according to a criminal complaint filed against them.

Bail was set at $20,000 for Marquez and $10,000 for Roberts.

Man Claims Bouncer Assaulted Him; Video Showed Otherwise

A Hollis man has been charged with filing a false police report after telling police he was roughed up by bouncers who ejected him from a Maspeth strip club. Surveillance video showed the man actually injured himself on his car door, according to authorities.

Khuram Murtaza, 34, of 191st Street, was arraigned in Queens Criminal Court on August 25 on charges of third-degree falsely reporting an incident just after midnight that morning outside Rouge Gentlemen’s Club on 58th Street.

When Officer Jaewon Kim of the 108th Precinct arrived at the club, Murtaza told him that he had suffered a lacerated nose during an assault inside the nightclub. However, the club manager told officers he kicked Murtaza out of the establishment and saw him smash his own face against a parked car. Officer Kim reviewed the surveillance video, which backed up the bouncer’s story, according to the criminal complaint filed against Murtaza.

Murtaza also was arrested earlier this year at the intersection of Myrtle Avenue and Woodhaven Boulevard near Forest Park for criminal mischief, according to published reports.

Big Bucks for Library Repairs

Building, Service and Technology Upgrades Planned

By Patricia Adams

Councilmember Eric Ulrich has announced over $1,000,000 in capital improvements for libraries in Howard Beach, Ozone Park and Broad Channel as part of his allocation from the FY2010 budget.

Ulrich presented checks to Queens Library CEO Thomas W. Galante at the Howard Beach and Ozone Park branches on Tuesday afternoon following two successive press conferences in which plans for each of the three district libraries were released.

As part of the capital improvement plan two of the branches will get much needed repairs in addition to technological and customer service enhancements. The Howard Beach branch will get a much needed new roof, while Ozone Park is to get a new heating and cooling system. Many people, as Ulrich and Galante both pointed out, go to the library in extreme heat or cold to take shelter and save on home energy bills.

The Broad Channel branch is not in need of repairs but will see their share of the money go to enhancement of services. Ozone Park will get $460,000, Howard Beach $465,000 and Broad Channel $100,000 for a grand total of $1,025,000

In addition to improving each of the properties physically, there will be a major push to raise the levels of customer service by introducing automated systems for returning books. Each of the three branches will get twenty four hour, seven-day-a-week book slots installed.

The new automated return system will provide customers with a receipt and they will be able to check online within one minute of their transaction to see that it is entered in the system. There will be slots on the outside of all the buildings and an additional terminal inside the library. Officials say that automated returns in the library offer patrons reduced waiting time and allow customers the convenience of returning materials at any time. It will also free up the staff so they can spend their time answering questions, organizing collections and advising patrons with any of their library needs, instead of checking in books.

“I would like to thank Councilman Ulrich for his tremendous support in bringing this money to the library,” Thomas Galante said. “Major enhancements will be made at these branches that encourage people to borrow and use the services.”

Ulrich pointed out that current economic conditions find people using libraries more than ever. “Some people might not have Internet access at home. Or they want to get a DVD or movie. Here they can do it free,” said Ulrich. “I am really pleased to have been able to deliver this funding for such beneficial and critical service;” the councilmember told The Forum, “for too long libraries were put at the back of the line behind other projects like transportation. Every dollar we invest in libraries today is an investment in the future.”

For those who will be using the library near to their homes or schools, the improvements are eagerly anticipated. Mary Siricchio and Florence Bierver were exiting the library as the press conference in Howard Beach was ending. Curious about the crowd of cameras outside, the two women inquired about what was going on. Upon learning their neighborhood branch was getting $465,000 in funding, both women were extremely pleased by the news.

“It’s very important to make sure the library is available to everyone,” said Bierver, “especially children.” Her friend chimed in, “it’s also important to the old children like us,” Mary Siricchio said. “It’s nice for all of us to get something that makes us all so rich like reading does.”

Queens Library is an independent, not-for-profit corporation and is not affiliated with any other library. The Queens Library serves a population of 2.3 million in the most ethnically diverse county in the U.S. With a record 23 million items in circulation for FY 2009, the library has the highest circulation of any public library system in the U.S. and one of the highest circulations in the world.

For more information about programs, services, locations, events and news, visit or call (718)990-0700.

Police Captain Promoted to Deputy Inspector

By Patricia Adams

Sitting across the table from him, you realize he’s the same guy you knew from before. You used to call him Captain. Now you call him Deputy Inspector. But no matter what title you put before his name, Joe Courtesis is undoubtedly a cop’s cop. And as the commanding officer of the 106th Precinct. he’s the top cop, with his finger on the pulse of his precinct and the community.

Known for a hands-on approach to the job, Courtesis is well respected and has earned the reputation within the community, among business owners and residents alike, for being highly responsive. His 16-year career reached new heights last Friday when he was promoted from Captain to Deputy Inspector at a ceremony held at One Police Plaza.

He started as a patrolman then worked in the detective squad at the 83rd Precinct in Brooklyn. The first of several promotions landed him as a sergeant in Housing in Brooklyn. After that came another promotion–this time to lieutenant. In 2004, Joe Courtesis became Captain Courtesis. He spent two years at the 106 as the Executive Officer before going to the 113 to serve as the Executive Officer there until 2007.

He returned in 2007 as the Commanding Officer at the 106, where he says despite his promotion, he hopes he can stay. “I don’t want to leave the 106,” Courtesis says. “I’ve known this precinct for a long time. I like the community, the people, and the command. I have no requests to leave, only to stay,” he says with a wishful smile.

Asked how the face of policing has changed since the start of his career, Courtesis responds very quickly. “There is a tremendous degree of accountability now. Because of technology we have become a much more micro-managed agency.” Courtesis reminds us that his career in the NYPD started at the same time the department started developing and using Comp Stat to track and monitor crime patterns and frequencies.

He remembers the day when maps with pushpins hung on walls of station houses. “That’s how we tracked a burglary cluster.” The difference today he says is that with the touch of a button, investigators can immediately access every detail about a crime area including any convicted felons living in the area.

To further evidence the technology, the Deputy Inspector points to a computer station set up across from the desk. “When that camera turns and faces me, it means the Police Commissioner wants to talk to me.”

Courtesis says he is proudest of the fact that his promotion is one that comes not after a test, but after peer recommendation and approval by department brass. “It’s a hard promotion to obtain and it’s a great thing to be acknowledged by your colleagues.” The other thing that makes him especially proud, Courtesis says is seeing his wife and children so happy to share the moment with him.

And when you’re finished talking to Joe Courtesis he shakes your hand and thanks you for coming. You feel no less welcome than you did at the beginning but you know it’s time to go. The former Captain, now Deputy Inspector is standing before you. His hands are on his hips and he is smiling. For Joe Courtesis it’s time to get back to work.

'Cell Phones for Soliders' Program Seeks Donations

Council Member Elizabeth S. Crowley launched a drive to collect old cell phones to be recycled into prepaid calling cards for U.S. troops stationed overseas, as part of the nationwide “Cell Phones For Soldiers” program. Cell Phones for Soldiers sends phones to ReCellular in exchange for funds to purchase calling cards. One recycled cell phone provides an hour of talk time for soldiers abroad.

“According to statistics from the Pentagon, roughly 200,000 U.S. troops are deployed overseas,” said Council Member Elizabeth Crowley. “Cell Phones for Soldiers is a great way to help connect American heroes abroad with their families back home. Over the next two months we hope to collect 1,000 cell phones which will allow soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan to talk with loved ones in the United States. Hundreds of millions of Americans dispose of their old cell phones every year. Instead of throwing them away, I hope people will donate them to this great cause.”

Cell Phones for Soldiers was founded by teenage siblings, Robbie and Brittany Berquist, from Norwell, Mass., with $21 of their own money. Since then, the registered 501c3 non-profit organization has raised millions of dollars in donations and distributed more than 500,000 prepaid calling cards to soldiers serving overseas. Every week, Cell Phones for Soldiers ships about 6,500 to 7,000 calling cards to service members in Afghanistan, Iraq and Kuwait.

“Cell Phones for Soldiers is a great program because it supports the soldiers oversees and abroad in combat connect with family back home,” said Ronny Burdier, a resident of Glendale and CPO who served in the war in Afghanistan from May 2007 to August 2008. “The program seeks out family and moral support from back home and that is important. It’s great program for this community and as a soldier, I encourage people to support it.”

Those who wish to donate their cell phones, bring them to the Office of Council Member Elizabeth Crowley at 64-77 Dry Harbor Road, Middle Village, NY or the Office of Congressman Anthony Weiner at 80-02 Kew Gardens Road, Room 5000, Kew Gardens, NY 11415. For more information, visit