[7 MIN READ]
In this article:
Swedish Health Services executive leader Kevin Brooks recalls the challenges and lessons of the early days of the COVID pandemic.
Health care workers were pushed to the brink, highlighting the need for Swedish to care for its personnel.
Thanks to support from the community and scientific breakthroughs, Swedish is poised to continue battling the virus.
Kevin Brooks, the regional chief operating officer of the Puget Sound region services at Swedish Health Services, has over 15 years of experience in health care leadership and strategic planning. The pandemic, he says, has tested caregivers and administrators in unimaginable ways — but it’s also highlighted the resilience of dauntless workers who’ve made sacrifices beyond measure.
“Throughout this, we’ve been together and have had some great successes and some failures, too. We have been helping each other to change and grow and get back up when we get knocked down,” says Kevin. “We have been continually learning.”
As part of our series recognizing the second anniversary of the COVID-19 pandemic, we talked with Kevin about his recollections from the pandemic’s early days, the experiences of Swedish caregivers and the lessons learned that have changed Swedish and all of health care.
Swedish Regional Chief Operating Officer Kevin Brooks
Share with us some key memories of the pandemic’s beginning.
Our chief medical officer got an email from another doctor saying, "Hey, there's this flu thing going on halfway around the world, but we should keep our eyes on this."
Providence Everett received their first COVID patient shortly after that. Swedish was near ground zero. And then there we were. At the time, knowledge was so scarce. I would say, if there is such a thing, we were in a state of calm paranoia. We were vigilant but not overreactive because we're scientists. We are leaders and work with some of the best clinicians in the world. We know how to handle infectious disease. Then everything [started] at the skilled nursing facility in Kirkland.
We were wondering how many rooms we would need to convert to negative pressure. We were continuously learning. We had a lot of staff and were preparing because we expected this gigantic surge. And to the credit of the citizens of Seattle and the leadership of Governor Jay Inslee, Seattle locks down tight, and our surge [abated]. And quickly, the virus turned to New York City; it was a matter of three weeks probably. First, it was all on Seattle, and then woosh, right to New York.
And from there, we were with the rest of the country and still learning about how to clinically manage the disease. And then we were in incident command mode for months and months. We were creating new ways to figure out if we can safely do surgeries. We were figuring out how to safely do the necessary testing patients need before a procedure. We had to figure out ways to lock down our hospitals, so we established entry control points. We dedicated a lot of resources to staffing and infection prevention. How do we handle end-of-life scenarios when visitors aren’t allowed in? How do we let a child whose mom is dying say goodbye with dignity and grace? We were creating all those policies in the moment.
It feels like what happened after 9/11 in that it’s hard to remember a time when it wasn’t like this. Can you share your thoughts on that?
My first thought is that we now live in a kind of this pre-, post- and peri-COVID world. That’s the reality. But like 9/11, our caregivers and health care leaders exhibited incredible leadership — and did it together. We were a team. We worked together. And we worked really, really hard. We had huge challenges, and we became very close as a team; we became close friends and colleagues. We had trust, and we had each other's backs. And we knew it. That esprit de corps, that camaraderie, is special. I think people talk about this in the military and the fog of war and your brother has your back, and I think we have that. But I think that the compassion fatigue we're all reading about is very, very real for our frontline caregivers in the trenches. One of our big challenges is how we take care of each other and our caregivers.
A caregiver from Swedish Edmonds
Tell us about how bedside caregivers supported each other through those first days.
I don't think that it’s possible to truly understand the level of emotional endurance [caregivers] needed to have. In the beginning, they had to do everything at once: managing a new disease and all the clinical learnings that go along with that — and continuing to treat non-COVID patients. Then there's the personal protective equipment; early on we didn't have enough. We were reusing N95 masks, and that was concerning. There was fear associated with that, and we did not have the science at that time showing us the efficacy of these things.
And then there was the need for extended shifts and overtime and just continually grinding it out. And then of course, [we were also worried about Swedish being] economically damaged at the end of the first wave and second waves. We talked about saving lives and saving livelihoods because there was a real fear of losing people’s livelihoods in all of this as well. The basic truth is that delivering care is a team sport. And when you are [together with people in such intense circumstances] you develop an emotional support network. Caregivers didn't always have that place of respite, so we started a Gratitude Garden, where people would go and write things they were grateful for.
Tell us about community support during those early days. What did it mean for Swedish and our caregivers?
There was such an outpouring from the community, whether it was restaurants or retailers who were showing their support. There were parades of truckers who would go around the hospital honking their horns in support and schools where kids were drawing pictures and sending them to our caregivers. And of course, the banners for our health care heroes—all of that was fantastic and awesome.
And logistically, early on, there was just so much support, and that was great. We had people calling us saying, "Hey, I have this apartment building. I have the third and fourth floor; they're empty. You're welcome to use them.” Or “Hey, I'll give you discounted [room] rates for nurses, so they don't have to go home to their families, but they can have a safe place to sleep."
Then as the need for the vaccine came around, we partnered very closely with the city of Seattle to open the mass vaccination site at Lumen Field. That was super cool.
Thank you, Seattle, for showing up to get your shots at Lumen! Saturday, June 12 was our last day administering vaccine. Here’s what the community helped us achieve:— Swedish (@Swedish) June 13, 2021
•100,000+ doses administered
•44% BIPOC residents served
•500+ volunteers each clinic day pic.twitter.com/jTKf4KjqSE
Today we have vaccines for COVID, something that seemed very far away at the beginning. Tell us about Swedish’s role in making vaccines available to caregivers and the community.
When the vaccines first became available, we understood that obviously, caregivers should be vaccinated first. And early on as with so many aspects of COVID, we didn't have systems in place to handle this. We knew it was going to be challenging but I kept thinking of airline pilots: "We're going to go through some turbulence, but we're going to get to a cruising altitude, and we'll be fine.”
We may not have had the systems and procedures in place immediately, but I knew we’d get there. We focused on priority, volume and equity. We wanted to make sure that we could get as many shots in as many arms as we could, but [at first] we had to make sure it was put in the right arms — those who were actually working with COVID patients. And we were also very focused on equity. Those were the three pillars upon which we built our vaccination program.
We are very proud of the work we did. We were the first to set up mobile vaccination clinics focused on vulnerable communities. And we were the first to set up a mass vaccination site with Seattle University. We partnered closely with the University of Washington in creating a coordinated mass vaccination plan across King County. And, of course, there's the night that's well-documented in The New York Times and The Washington Post, where Kaiser Permanente's freezer broke, and they called us. We had our incident command channel set up and I just typed in VACCINE BAT SIGNAL, and within minutes I had [people responding]. We were vaccinating hundreds of people well into the early hours of the morning. We are very proud of the way we partnered with our community in that moment.
What are five big takeaways that reflect your most important lessons learned so far?
Humans are capable of amazing things.
Humans are best when we work as teams.
It is critical to assume good intent and give each other the benefit of the doubt.
Look for opportunities to express gratitude and kindness to everyone because you never know what kind of battle someone is fighting that you can’t see.
Learn from the way health care has changed and build on that.
What advice do you have for the next generation of healthcare leaders?
Stay humble. Stay kind. Listen to science. And get vaccinated.
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