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‘This was a marathon:’ Stanford Medicine tackles a pandemic

How Stanford Medicine ramped up in the spring of 2020 to cope with a coming global pandemic and learned how to brace for the next wave of COVID-19 patients.

When my editors asked me to describe how Stanford Medicine faced the challenges of the early days and months of the coronavirus pandemic in Stanford Medicine magazine, I quailed.

My own experience behind the scenes at the Office of Communications had been filled with urgent deadlines, late nights and busy weekends. My colleagues and I worked to respond to media inquiries, convey breaking news, and generally tend to a growing need to distribute prompt, accurate information to both internal and external audiences.

How much more stressful and fraught must it have been for those who were truly on the front lines? Those tending patients or developing laboratory tests? Those working to keep our health care workers safe in the face of shortages of personal protective equipment and the anxiety of being confronted with a deadly, largely-unknown virus?

I soon found out.

'Not knowing what to be prepared for is hard'

"In the early days, we didn't know much about what this disease was or how it was transmitted in all instances," Alison Kerr, chief administrative office of clinical operations for Stanford Health Care, told me. "We didn't know how best to protect ourselves and our families. Not knowing what to be prepared for is hard. It's scary."

Kerr continued:

But even though there were so many unknowns, our people came rolling in the door to help. They were running into the fire, rather than away from it. It was incredibly inspirational.

I've said before that I'm often humbled by the patients and professionals with whom I interact here at Stanford Medicine. Every one of them is special.

But as I learned more about the efforts mounted by clinicians, leaders, administrators, staff, researchers and digital information specialists throughout March and April 2020, I scrambled for words to accurately describe their feats of endurance, self-sacrifice and -- yes -- creativity, as they rose to this unprecedented challenge.

For example, an explosion of clinical research led to new guidelines about how to care for patients with COVID-19, research into the effectiveness of drugs like remdesivir and an immunosuppressant called tocilizumab, and alternative, less-invasive ways of collecting specimens and test pooling to conserve scare resources.

Samuel Wald, MD, vice president of surgical services at Stanford Health Care, told me, "A lot of really rapid, evidence-based practice has come out of this pandemic."

Prepared for a possible surge

By mid-April, as it became apparent that the expected surge in patients had been mitigated, in part, by earlier shelter-in-place orders, Stanford Medicine pivoted to return to safely providing in-person health care, while also providing guidance to the community about how to resume normal activities. And although threat of another wave of infection is not far from anyone's mind, those who went through last spring's trial-by-fire are confident.

"Now we have testing capacity, we have personal protective equipment and a governance for this situation all in place," Wald said, noting:

We're better informed about what constitutes a dangerous exposure and how to limit that for our health care workers. We can be more sophisticated in how we triage patients and be more nuanced in our responses.

Wald went on to reflect on the early days of the pandemic, comparing it to other crisis situations faced by the organization in the past. "We've done a lot of sprints, but this was a marathon. This was a marathon being run at a pretty fast pace. There were really no breaks."

Image by Jason Holley

Read more from Stanford Medicine magazine's special report on COVID-19 here.

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