It’s been nearly three months since we treated New Jersey’s first COVID-19 patient and thankfully, we continue to discharge more patients than we admit. Our frontline teams have performed heroically; they are still treating brave patients throughout our network and they are rightly honored by our entire nation for their courage and resilience.
As New Jersey begins to reawaken in the aftermath of this scourge, the health care industry is also pivoting to recovery. I’d like to share with you the steps we have taken to become fully operational, the lessons we have learned from the crisis and what we can expect for the future.
With Gov. Phil Murphy’s executive order to resume elective surgeries and other invasive procedures, we have implemented robust and comprehensive strategies to ensure the safety of our patients and team members. Sadly, physicians across the state have noticed patients are delaying treatment for even emergency and cancer care, fearful that hospitals aren’t safe.
I can assure you they are safe: We have created separate areas within our hospitals for the treatment of COVID-19 patients and non-COVID-19 patients, including in our emergency departments. We have rigorously cleaned and sanitized all facilities, including using the most advanced ultraviolet (UV) light cleaning technology.
We are testing all patients at our hospitals and long-term care facilities, as well as Hackensack Meridian team members and physicians. We are also monitoring the temperatures of all patients, visitors, team members and anyone who enters our facilities.
We are providing masks to our patients, visitors and team members and physicians and requiring them to wear the masks when at our Hackensack Meridian facilities. We are also ensuring that we have appropriate PPE for all team members, now and into the future.
These risk mitigation strategies will keep everyone safe and let us continue to deliver the high-quality, compassionate care our communities expect of us.
As we move forward, we have also learned so much in this crisis, lessons that we will carry into the future to prepare for what many experts believe will be another serious wave of COVID-19 this fall.
First, in a crisis, you need an organized, robust and nimble response. We witnessed New Jersey hospitals, especially those in the north hit hardest by the virus, adapt rapidly; at the peak in mid-April, cases doubled nearly every two days. During that time, hospitals significantly expanded capacity, recruited more staff and secured more PPE.
We started preparing in January, by shoring up essentials, assessing supply chains and staffing and closely monitoring developments globally. We created a network command center, an army of experts that strategized 24-7 – epidemiologists, internists, supply chain experts and senior staff with strong connections to federal and state agencies. The team pivoted quickly: they marshalled supplies from one hospital to the next, expanded the number of isolation rooms in real time and retrofitted unused areas to provide more care capacity.
Second, success requires a strong culture of innovation, a thriving ecosystem that can develop a needed breakthrough in real time.
Created just a year ago, our Center for Discovery and Innovation (CDI) has delivered huge dividends for our network and the communities we are proud to serve. A week after we treated our first patient in March, the CDI launched a rapid COVID-19 test, a milestone that could reduce the wait time for results from several days to four to six hours. When we started using the test, only the New Jersey state lab was available and as cases mounted, delays were inevitable. The test became a vital weapon early in the pandemic.
That same spirit is evident in our Convalescent Plasma Therapy, a clinical trial that has transfused the plasma of more than 100 “super donors’’ – those who recovered from the virus with high concentrations of antibodies – into seriously ill patients. The dozens of survivors include a pregnant woman and her newborn and one of our own, Dr. Karan Omidvari, a critical care expert, who suffered a hellish few weeks, intubated and isolated like so many of our patients. He was the 1,000th patient discharged from Hackensack University Medical Center and has vowed to return to the frontlines when he fully recovers.
In addition to our own clinical trial, we are participating in a national plasma trial in which we have already infused more than 500 patients. I continue to be inspired by the thousands of survivors who are willing to donate their plasma.
We have put together a playbook with lessons learned.
We will be ready to address any future outbreak.
Our network is also conducting multiple COVID clinical trials, including Remdesivir and other promising therapies, under the supervision of Ihor Sawczuk, regional president, Northern Market and Chief Research Officer. All told, 1,000 patients have been administered the latest investigative treatments over the course of the pandemic.
Third, never underestimate the importance of communication. We kept 36,000 team members and 7,000 physicians informed through daily updates, including news of rapidly changing CDC protocols during the crisis. This centralized communication was strengthened by weekly webinars and virtual town hall meetings for our team members and physicians to ask important questions of key leaders, including me. It was also important to keep our board members informed; they remain valued partners in this unprecedented storm. I also rounded where and when it was safe because I strongly believe it’s important to convey my support to our care teams.
We also witnessed model communication from Gov. Murphy and Health Commissioner Judith Persichilli in their daily updates, which provided frank assessments of the crisis and vital information. Their responsiveness has been admirable.
Fourth, new care delivery models are here to stay. The pandemic has increased use of telehealth considerably – the U.S. market is expected to reach around $10 billion this year, with an 80 percent year-over-year growth due to the virus, according to industry research. In our network, 90 percent of behavioral health visits are conducted via telehealth, a trend we expect to continue. Favorable reimbursement from the government and private payers is also making it more financially feasible for providers to connect with patients this way.
Lastly, we will continue to remain vigilant in anticipation of the virus returning in the fall as many leading experts have stated, including Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s leading infectious disease physician. Let me be clear: we are preparing for when this happens, not if.
We are making plans to have a 90- day inventory of PPE. We are solidifying our efforts to supplement staffing. We will also work closely with the New Jersey Department of Health to monitor capacity and be ready to pivot to expand as needed. We have put together a playbook with lessons learned. We will be ready to address any future outbreak.
As we prepare for this eventuality, we also bring new knowledge and resilience to the fight. I believe that we will continue to provide exceptional and compassionate care because of the innovation and dedication I have seen from our team members. They inspire me everyday and embody the best of our profession.
Robert Garrett is CEO of Hackensack Meridian Health, New Jersey’s largest health network with 17 hospitals and more than 500 patient care locations.