The initial surge of COVID-19 cases created historic challenges for hospitals nationwide but the response from acute care facilities in New Jersey involved unique levels of collaboration and cooperation, a novelty for some health care systems that usually function as fierce competitors.
The power of these partnerships was among the lessons from the past year that Cathy Bennett, the President and CEO of the New Jersey Hospital Association President, shared Tuesday in a conversation with NJ Spotlight News. Bennett, a former state health commissioner, now hopes to build on this momentum in ways that will benefit public health long after the pandemic.
“On the average day we like to call that ‘cooper-tition’,” she said with a laugh. “But for this day, for this time, it really was about collaboration. It was about cooperation. It was about leadership from the highest levels of health care systems.”
“It wasn’t about competition. It was about coming together to save lives,” she added.
By the middle of April 2020, New Jersey’s 72-acute care facilities were facing an unprecedented wave of hospitalizations, with more than 8,000 COVID-19 patients receiving care, according to state data. Nearly 2,000 of these patients were in intensive care, where three in four were attached to ventilators to help them to breathe. A year later, there are fewer than 2,000 COVID-19 patients hospitalized across the state.
The struggle for resources
Bennett recalled how hospital personnel struggled to make sense of the unknown virus and adapt their protocols and clinical treatments and how community support helped curb the emotional and physical strain on frontline workers. She detailed the struggle to secure protective gear and other critical resources and remembered how providers came together to overcome these gaps.
“All of a sudden, not just in New Jersey, but all our sister states, the country, globally, we were all fighting to get our hands on PPE” [or personal protective equipment, the masks gowns and other items needed to keep staff and patients safe], Bennett said. “We had PPE on hand — we always keep a supply on hand — but certainly nothing for a novel virus like this.”
To accommodate the surge in patients, Bennett said hospital teams worked tirelessly to identify new space — in cafeterias, empty hallways, medical offices — to set up new beds as the federal government created field medical stations to reduce the pressure on acute care sites. The state created four health care regions; and hospitals, emergency responders, public health officials and other leaders all came together to collaborate on the response, she said.
Bennett would like to leverage these partnerships to do more to address underlying social factors — like poverty and housing — that have an outsize impact on an individual’s and community’s health. “What really played out for us in the pandemic, and I think this is a good lesson learned,” she said, “is that public health, together with clinical health, together with the government and the private sector, we all need to come together because this is a team sport.”
“No one entity is going to drive this forward alone,” she added.