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The Story of What It All Means: COVID-19 One Year Later

March 16, 2021

Dr. Mark Keroack, Baystate Health's President & CEO, Reflects on a Year of COVID-19

March 14 marked one year since we admitted our first patient with COVID-19. Anniversaries like this are marked in part with statistics, some of which are somber. Since that day and up until March 1st, we have admitted over 3,000 patients, of whom 474 have died. We have performed 183,000 tests for COVID-19 in our labs and diagnosed over 9,000 cases. We have administered over 42,000 doses of vaccine in just a few months.

The tale that these numbers tell is staggering, but they do not include any measurement of the personal toll the disease has taken on all of us. No one is measuring hours of worry, sleepless nights, tears shed, fears overcome, or lessons learned. But they are no less real and, in many ways, more impactful. I view the pandemic as a mass trauma event, affecting our organization, our communities, our country and the world. Like other traumatic events, it upsets our world view and causes us to question what we thought we knew. Before COVID-19, many of us thought that global pandemics were things to read about in history books, that scientific experts were trusted by all as sources of truth, that our neighborhoods could be insulated from events in the developing world, and that going to work in a healthcare setting involved only risks that were well understood and easily preventable.

But the pandemic acted as a stress test for all that, exposing weaknesses and defects in many systems thought to be secure and predictable. It revealed the connectedness of the global community and the gaps in our system of care. It exposed fears and suspicions that demonstrated an underlying mistrust of experts and questioning of science. And it showed that our learning and understanding could be outpaced by the lightning speed of a novel virus. At the same time, it revealed great strengths. The level of teamwork at Baystate Health, the rapidity of learning, the flexibility and creativity of our staff are beyond anything I have ever seen in my 40 years in healthcare.

Last spring, Massachusetts was one of the early states affected, and the phenomenon of asymptomatic spread was underappreciated. The frontline caregivers at Baystate Health showed true courage in stepping up to care for their patients each and every day and night. As the initial surge waned over the summer, we went through a time of great uncertainty, as restrictions remained in force in our communities while the virus raged in other states, and outbreaks in care areas caused us to reassess our protocols and how well we were observing them.

The second surge that began in November was in many ways more challenging than the first. With staff stretched throughout the health system and contract labor hard to find, you managed to endure an unremitting surge of COVID-19 patients across the system for over three months. Despite the clear decline in COVID-19 cases these past few weeks, pent up demand for non-COVID care is filling many beds. Thankfully, new team members are now coming online in greater numbers. Between their arrival and the widespread vaccination of most front line caregivers, the strain of the second surge seems to be abating. We are seeing the beginning of the end of the pandemic.

Having come through a trauma that upended our collective world view, it is time to begin to process what has happened, both as an organization and as individuals.

Just as Baystate Health is assessing the best way to emerge from the crisis, we all should be thinking about the path forward for ourselves. As I mentioned before, the pandemic has revealed a world that is harsher and more disordered than many thought it was. Many emotions come along with that realization, including sadness, anger, and anxiety. Traumas can cause lasting effects if we do not recognize their impact. Problems like post-traumatic stress disorder or ascribing to conspiracy theories happen when people deny the importance of a traumatic event or grasp at simplistic answers.

It is important to discuss the impact on you of this past year with people you trust and with those you care about and love. As we begin to explore everything that has happened and how it has affected us, the story of what it all means to each of us may emerge. This story would hopefully acknowledge your struggles as well as the strength and courage that you brought to your work and your home life over such a long time. Understanding the story of your own endurance will hopefully lead to a renewed focus on the importance of relationships and community in your lives, because recovery from trauma in isolation is far more difficult. Successful emergence also may result in a recommitment to higher ideals, such as service to community or other people, something I believe is at the heart of our mission at Baystate Health.

There is nothing I can say or do that will erase the stresses and strains of what has happened this past year. As we emerge from the pandemic toward a brighter spring, I hope you all find time to explore your own pathways to health and renewal. I am confident that together we can move forward and continue to make a positive difference in the lives of our neighbors, friends, and communities.

— Dr. Mark Keroack, Baystate Health President & CEO

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