St. Lawrence Health System readies for COVID-19 cases, mental health pros offer strategies for pandemic-related anxiety
Thursday, March 26, 2020 - 5:33 pm

POTSDAM -- St. Lawrence Health System is taking additional measures to ensure preparations are in place to meet the demands a COVID-19 pandemic may require, said a press release from SLHS.

Meanwhile, their outpatient psychiatric director is encouraging patients to focus on the “what is” and not the “what if” during the current health crisis, and offers strategies for dealing with related anxiety.

COVID Measures

The decision to close some Canton services, some ambulatory services, and sleep study services were among the first off-site patient-facing changes, said the press release.

The system has modified six of its practices into phone/telemedicine service practices; alleviating foot traffic into the offices and allowing for a reallocation of medical supplies and staff.

"Our health system is uniquely prepared to care for patients with COVID-19. The organization has worked around the clock over the past several weeks to adapt policies and operations and prepare its teams. That work is ongoing with steps and actions taken daily in response to new developments," said Associate Chief Medical Officer Andrew Williams, MD, FACP.

"As we all work together to flatten the curve, St. Lawrence Health System is doing everything within its power to stay ahead of it," Williams said.

To date, the Health System has trained and prepared doctors and care team, prepared beds for those affected by the virus, installed a new HVAC unit to create additional negative pressure rooms, expanded triage space, developed contingency plans, made preparations to accommodate a surge in demand, brought community partners together to share best practices, implemented daily screenings for caregivers, postponed all non-urgent surgeries and appointments, and set up doctors and providers to serve people telephonically and virtually.

To keep apprised of the most current information regarding closures or changes in services throughout St. Lawrence Health System, visit

Mentally Dealing with the Crisis

As COVID-19 makes its way around the globe, many North Country residents realize it’s just a matter of time before it moves into their area. Individuals dealing with anxiety or depression may find this impending news especially hard to deal with, but help is available, said a press release from SLHS.

SLHS Director of Outpatient Psychiatric Services Dr. Laurie Zweifel noted COVID-19, or the coronavirus, is like nothing we have ever dealt with in Northern New York. The unknown has many individuals on edge and feeling overwhelmed, but there are things they can do to better help themselves cope, and people who can assist them.

“Psychiatrists Dr. Mariam Asar and Dr. Joseph Zollo, along with our entire staff, have been working to meet the needs of our patients, healthcare staff, and the community,” Zweifel said in the news release. “We encourage our patients to try and focus on the ‘what is’ and not ‘what if.’ It is important to feel grounded and live in the present. Think about all the things you have right now – food, friends and family, shelter, and medications,” she said. “Looking at things day-by-day and sticking to a routine may help.”

Other coping suggestions from Dr. Zweifel include taking care of yourself by eating regularly, getting enough sleep, exercising (even 10 minutes per day), and taking time doing things you like that will distract you, like watching a movie, listening to music, or reading. Relaxation techniques like deep breathing, meditation, or resting in the dark may also be calming.

“I recommend self-soothing through the five senses – which are the sense of sight, hearing, smell, taste, and touch. Think of what things you find comfort in that use your senses. For example with sense of touch, maybe a shower is comforting, or holding your pet,” Zweifel said. “Positive self-talk is another great tool. Support yourself by saying ‘I am capable and strong and can get through this,’ or ‘I can learn from this situation and grow as a person.’”

Children may be dealing with their own anxieties as well. Even though schools are closed, they may still be contacted via phone, or through the district’s website for guidance on helping the youngsters grapple with current events.

Zweifel noted that while we are all being told to limit our social activities that does not mean we have to be isolated. Talking with people in your household, friends and family on the phone, by email or text, or through social media can keep you feeling connected. If you feel you need medical assistance to cope, she pointed out the St. Lawrence Health System staff is here to help.

“Call your primary care provider, anyone at Behavioral Health, or someone you know and are comfortable with who works for the System. We will get you the help you need,” she said. Assistance is further available 24/7 by calling Reachout at (315) 265-2422, or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at (800) 273-TALK.

St. Lawrence Health System Director of Wellness and Sustainability Laura Cordts noted COVID-19 is making us all a bit uneasy. “Feeling anxious about stressful events and situations is totally ‘normal.’ To some extent, everyone feels anxious when things feel unpredictable or not under our own control,” she said.

“It’s important to focus on the facts, but not be obsessive. Overloading on news, websites, and social media posts about COVID-19 probably isn’t going to help. Limit the amount of time you spend each day reading and searching for information,” she said. “Choose a select few reputable sources to gather the facts.”

Cordts suggested the Center for Disease Control (, and New York State Department of Health ( are excellent origins for factual news. St. Lawrence Health System has also established an on-line page for current COVID-19 information on its website at

Cordts and Dr. Zweifel both pointed out how important it is for everyone to do their part during this time by following hygiene and distance recommendations made by the health industry.