The announcement: How HMH responded internally to news of coronavirus case

After the first presumptive coronavirus patient and his doctors were informed of the diagnosis Wednesday night, Hackensack Meridian Health officials began the process of making sure all of their employees got the news — and got guidance on how they should proceed and what steps the health system was implementing.

It was at this point — about 8 p.m. — that HMH officials were glad they had been keeping their employees in the loop and in the know for weeks. The lines of communication had been established.

Within hours, HMH officials contacted more than 100 board members (not just those on the HMH board, but other boards connected to the health system) and more than 200 key senior leaders at their more than 500 patient care facilities and 17 hospitals, including Hackensack University Medical Center, where the patient is being treated.

By 10 p.m., the more than 36,000 employees (and 7,000 physicians) were beginning to receive information about the situation from CEO Bob Garrett in an email, explaining that the health system had been notified that a patient at Hackensack University Medical Center was presumed to have contracted coronavirus, or COVID-19.

Bob Garrett, CEO of Hackensack Meridian Health.

Garrett felt that notifying everyone in the organization was the right thing to do. More importantly, he told ROI-NJ, it continued a protocol the health system had put into place soon after word of COVID-19 became public.

“I think when you have a situation like COVID-19, which is growing and changing pretty rapidly, communication is so important,” he said. “A lot of times, the fear comes because of lack of knowledge, lack of information. So, we’ve been really communicating regularly, every day since the virus was first reported in China.”

Daily emails, Garrett said, have been coming from Dr. Jerry Zuckerman, who serves as the organization’s vice president for infectious disease control and prevention.

“He has sent out a daily situation update since the end of January,” Garrett said. “Every day, something goes out to our leaders, to our team members, to our physicians. In addition to him updating the organization about what it looks like from a global perspective, he updates the information about what the risk is in the United States, what the public health response has been, what we’re doing at Hackensack Meridian, specifically, to prepare.”

On Thursday morning, employees throughout the system discussed the situation during their daily safety huddles, HMH officials said.

Garrett feels the health care professionals throughout HMH are ready to handle an emergency such as this. He points to the fact that the hospital was one designated by the CDC to handle patients during the recent Ebola crisis. It also was prepared to treat SARS patients.

“We did a lot of training,” he said. “We actually drilled, and we continue to drill since that time. So, we were prepared for these types of epidemics.”

Garrett, however, recognizes that, while treating infectious diseases is a way of life at hospitals and health care facilities, HMH officials recognized the impact of a patient with coronavirus is different than one that shares similar symptoms, such as the flu or pneumonia. After all, some health care officials around the world have not only contracted the virus, they have died from it.

It’s why the health system has a “WeCare” program, where employees can discuss any psychological concerns they may have, confidentially.

“The COVID-19 situation certainly is anxiety-producing for caregivers,” Garrett said. “Hackensack Meridian has a program called ‘WeCare,’ and it’s a confidential resource that’s available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. And it provides peer-to-peer support for all our team members.

“You can think of it as providing a safe zone to express thoughts, to express their reactions to a situation. It provides what I would call emotional first aid to team members who may have experienced a stressful event, including something like the COVID-19 situation. We have it as a confidential resource and it’s been very helpful.”

Garrett said HMH also has two email addresses where employees can send specific questions and get answers back quickly.

“We set up this command center so, as we’re communicating information to those 36,000 team members, we’re also answering their questions, their comments, their concerns,” he said. “I think communication is incredibly important at a time like this. We feel you can’t communicate too much. Some might call it overkill. I would not.”

Garrett said the communication back has been positive.

“I hear from team members, I hear from physicians that the communication that we put in place has been extremely helpful,” he said. “It makes them feel better that they understand how we’re preparing as a network. They see what’s going on at their own department or their own hospital. But, also, this gives them an opportunity to really get a sense of other networkwide preparations that have been going on.”

The numbers surrounding coronavirus are literally updating by the hour. As of Thursday night, there were nearly 100,000 cases worldwide (177 in the U.S.), which had resulted in 3,348 deaths (nine in the U.S.), according to a website that references Johns Hopkins data. The page indicated more than 53,000 people were considered recovered from the virus.

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