A Zoom conversation with DMU alumni who are physicians and leaders with the health organization MercyOne in Des Moines epitomized the realities of the pandemic, both grim and good: The virus is very real and deadly for some people; it will continue to create intense and ongoing challenges for health care providers, organizations and systems; and yet those very individuals and entities, working together, will get us through.
MercyOne leaders began collecting information about the coronavirus in December initially for its potential impact on medical supplies, some of which come from China. More concerns arose as the virus spread: What level of personal protective equipment would be needed? Would adequate testing be possible? Who should get tested, and who shouldn’t? What triage, treatment and cleaning protocols should be implemented?
“It was a constant learning process,” says Andrew Terry, D.O.’08, an emergency medical physician and the medical director of MercyOne’s flight program. “For example, there is no way you can be six feet apart on a helicopter, so there was understandable concern among our flight team.”
Iowa had its first documented case of community-spread COVID- 19 on March 14. “We knew it was coming. We were paying attention, trying to figure out how to keep health care providers safe and make sure we could take care of our community,” says Hijinio Carreon, D.O.’03, chief medical officer at MercyOne Central Iowa.
His colleagues’ early monitoring of the situation enabled them to do so. “People were very good about sharing information,” says Bradley Wilcox, D.O.’03, a critical care physician and pulmonary specialist. “It was great seeing everybody banding together toward the common good. It’s why we got into this profession.”
Aneesa Afroze, M.D., M.P.H.’18, FACP, AAHIVS, CTH, a pulmonary infectious disease physician, director of MercyOne’s antibiotic stewardship program, president of its medical staff and an adjunct assistant professor of internal medicine at DMU, echoes that: “We really learned how to work with each other. There have been so many meetings with people from different departments – respiratory therapy, pharmacy, supply chain, nursing coordinators. It’s been a good lesson on how dependent we are on each other.”
That teamwork will be critical as case numbers continue to climb and consequences play out – among them the long-term effects on infected people; the impact of the dramatic decrease in diagnoses of cancer and other conditions; burdens on rural facilities; poor Wi-Fi connections that impair telemedicine; and uncertainties about payer resources.
“We’re still down a number of staff, as people have to be home taking care of their kids. How will we get through this without burning everyone out?” asks Bill Vandivier, D.O.’03, a family practice physician, MercyOne senior vice president and president of the MercyOne Medical Group.
“COVID-19 also highlighted inequalities in health care, such as its impact on meatpacking workers and people of color,” Wilcox adds.
Despite the numerous unknowns, the MercyOne team, like most health care professionals, aver that COVID-19 is not “just a bad flu” or a “hoax.”
“There is death every day and fear among our employees and patients,” says Afroze. “People need to know this is not a joke, no one is immune to it, and handwashing, face coverings and physical distancing are critical.”