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H1N1 and Ebola offered valuable lessons to prepare Geisinger teams for the COVID-19 pandemic

While every pandemic is different, Geisinger was as ready for COVID-19 as possible, thanks to years of preparation, rooted in experience with previous epidemics and pandemics. 

COVID-19: Preparedness and change on a larger scale

Relying on existing pandemic plans and previously laid groundwork, Geisinger’s Emergency Management, Facilities and Biocontainment teams came together to draft a plan — fast.

“The first pandemic I really remember was H1N1 in 2009,” says Alan Neuner, vice president of Geisinger’s Facilities team. “While there was preparatory work with developing plans and screenings, that wasn’t anywhere near the extent of what we’ve done this time with COVID-19. The team has done more this time with negative pressure rooms, personal protective equipment (PPE) and others — at least 10 times more.” 

Learning from past pandemics

With previous pandemics to learn from — Ebola, H1N1 and even the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918 (documented through Geisinger’s extensive history) – Geisinger teams were ready for a larger-scale outbreak. In addition to a thorough action plan, this meant implementing the Biocontainment Unit team to minimize virus exposure and risk, and keep patients and staff safe. This specialized team was created in 2014 to specifically respond to and treat infectious diseases, such as Ebola, SARS and even measles. Staff from Infection Control, Environmental Services and Nursing work together to run this highly specialized multidisciplinary team.

“Our response to Ebola was mostly after the fact,” says Stephanie Gryboski, director of Emergency Management and Business Continuity, who explains that the disease didn’t pose an immediate threat to local communities. “COVID-19 was a larger scale and actual threat.” 

To properly handle an influx of COVID cases, the Facilities and Emergency Management teams — along with other teams across the organization — went to work. They built negative pressure rooms, provided PPE and staff training on the proper ways to don and doff it, and helped reassign employees to provide extra coverage in departments where it was needed most — all while adhering to masking protocols and practicing physical (social) distancing.

Shortly after the pandemic hit locally, the Biocontainment Unit began assigning site managers to train Geisinger employees on proper safety protocols to reduce staff exposures — a challenge every hospital and healthcare system faces. These safety training efforts have played a significant role in reducing staff exposures to the virus.

Communication is key

In the early phases of COVID-19 preparedness, frontline workers around the world worked through uncertainty and fear, concerned about potentially exposing loved ones to the virus or whether there would be enough PPE in light of global shortages. Through it all, our Emergency Management and Facilities teams worked quickly to make sure all necessary precautions were taken. Ms. Gryboski credits exceptional, transparent communication within the organization for helping reassure staff that their safety and the well-being of Geisinger patients and communities were the top priority.

Coming together for the common good

Although COVID-19 brought uncertainty, employees and teams stepped up, taking on new roles or continuing to work in their normal roles to keep things moving, pitching in wherever possible and showcasing their commitment and ingenuity. 

“I would have never dreamed I’d have anesthesiologists and ER doctors working together in the carpentry shop to build things. I’ve been so impressed by all of that,” says Mr. Neuner.

Pride in our people

Ms. Gryboski says she’s been impressed by employees across the organization who adapted quickly and accepted new challenges without complaint.

Adds Mr. Neuner, “Our people are dedicated to making things happen and working without fear, stepping up and leading. I have great pride in my people.”

Staff come together to build intubation cubes for COVID-19 units.
Staff come together to build intubation cubes for COVID-19 units.

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