Northeast Florida healthcare leaders share emergency, disaster preparedness lessons one year since the pandemic

COVID-19 reminds us that regional coordination of the health delivery system is critical to preparing for and responding to medical surge events.

Florida’s Region 3 Healthcare Coalition Alliance has served as the regional coordinator for the healthcare sector across 18 counties in Northeast Florida. Led by the Northeast Florida Regional Council (NEFRC), the Alliance’s role is to assist with preparedness, response, recovery, and mitigation activities as it relates to natural disasters, health pandemics, infectious diseases, and mass incidents. Through training exercises, knowledge sharing, and best practices, the Alliance has supported resiliency planning across the region through three coalitions: Northeast Florida Health Care Coalition, North Central Florida Health Care Coalition, and Coalition for Health and Medical Preparedness (CHAMP).

And then COVID-19 happened.

No amount of hospital surge planning could have predicted the strain that the pandemic would put on the healthcare sector. A year later, emergency preparedness now takes on a new meaning and is starting to look different with more discussion around surge planning and risk mitigation.

“As a regional health care alliance, our goal is to ensure that local healthcare providers and community partners alike maintain strong resiliency plans and have access to the available resources needed in the event of emergencies, pandemics, and disasters,” shares Elizabeth Payne, Chief Executive Officer of the Northeast Florida Regional Council. “COVID-19 reminds us that regional coordination of the health delivery system is critical to preparing for and responding to medical surge events.”

The CEOs and Chief Medical Officers (CMO) at University of Florida Health Jacksonville, Baptist Health, Heart of Florida Health Center, and Crucial Care reflect on COVID mitigations and learning opportunities. They share their views on how we better respond to highly infectious disease.

One year into the pandemic, what are the learning opportunities for how our healthcare system could become more resilient and better prepared for infectious disease outbreaks, disasters, and emergencies?

COVID-19 presented all of us with many opportunities to learn and grow. Moving forward, we understand that Emerging Infectious Diseases (EIDs) are something we need to evaluate each month through our disaster preparedness programs. – Michael Shumer, CEO, Crucial Care

This is probably an incredibly important lesson for federal and state governments – making sure we have enough PPE stockpiled in case we have another pandemic like this one. If your supplier is overseas, you must consider whether to bring some of that production back to the U.S. or be prepared to spend enormous sums to stockpile supplies with a limited shelf life. – David Vukich, MD, FACEP, Chief Medical Officer, UF Health Jacksonville

Is there anything that your healthcare facility has done or is doing to be more resilient and better prepared?

The COVID-19 pandemic challenged all of us and required us to be creative and agile in developing new solutions to new problems. One example at Baptist Health is our creation of a COVID-19 predictive analytics dashboard featuring real-time updates of patient volumes, equipment and supply needs, and bed capacity. Our teams have accelerated innovation in the face of unprecedented challenges using analytics to make better decisions, faster. – Brett McClung, FACHE, President and CEO, Baptist Health

Going forward, education of staff and patients continues to be the mainstay of our efforts. Understanding infection control before an infection occurs or spreads is crucial to being prepared for future events. – Dr. Tabatha Downey, CMO, Heart of Florida Health Center

As a Level I trauma center, one of our missions is to be prepared for any disaster – including hurricanes, mass casualty events, and now, as we’ve learned, a pandemic. We now know that a pandemic is not like a limited duration hurricane. An entirely different way of thinking, anticipation and rapid adaptation are needed for the unknown. – David Vukich, MD, FACEP, Chief Medical Officer, UF Health Jacksonville

What, if any, personal lessons or learning opportunities from this past year do you think will become a defining moment for your career now or in the future?

Heart of Florida Health Center did better than expected in response to the pandemic for employees, patients, and our community. What we learned was this too is temporary. We are essential for the community, so we must remain flexible, safe, and work harder than ever before. This has prepared us for any challenge, including any other possible pandemics. – Jamie Ulmer, CEO Heart of Florida Health Center

I think the way we came together as an organization, all of us working together in a sincere way to make sure we helped our patients and this community get through this crisis, is something I’ll always remember. Disaster response is a “life or death” chess game. You must think several moves ahead to win. – David Vukich, MD, FACEP, Chief Medical Officer, UF Health Jacksonville

We are a people business, and the pandemic reinforced how important it is to have the best people on the team. People businesses must put people first, whether it’s our patients or our caregivers, and that is something we will carry with us throughout our careers in healthcare. – Michael Shumer, CEO, Crucial Care

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