Coronavirus: One year later

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Carlton Fletcher, The Albany Herald, Ga.
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Mar. 13—ALBANY — It was one year ago today. Scott Steiner, who'd been in town a year as CEO of Phoebe Putney Health System, and I sat on the steps along the walkway just east of the main entrance to Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital.

Steiner and I had scheduled a meeting to talk about exciting programs set to start up at the regional hospital. Instead, we talked for a little more than an hour about this new virus that had suddenly entered everyone's lives. The coronavirus, we didn't know at the time, was about to change the world completely. And it was about to test the mettle of the staff at Phoebe in ways they never expected when they made their way through medical school.

Steiner was as calm as could be expected in that earlier meeting, but it became apparent as we talked that he had put on his "game face" so as not to rattle the troops, few of whom had an inkling of what lay before them. Underneath, he confessed, the medical profession was working blindly, and Steiner was as concerned even as those not in the medical field whose only understanding of the virus was what they'd read and heard in news reports.

It's somewhat quaint now to think of how Steiner pointed to Phoebe's readiness to combat the virus by allowing as to how the hospital's staff had wisely — and quietly — bought extra piles of emergency supplies — the PPP that would become a part of the country's daily dialog in days to come — in advance of the virus being confirmed locally.

That bit of good news was consumed in the reality of what lay ahead when Phoebe's staff used up a six-month supply of PPE in six days.

"Overwhelmed? I can't say there was a time when we were just completely overwhelmed," Steiner said Thursday as he reflected on the year of COVID. "Don't they say you're not supposed to ever let 'em see you sweat? I know there was concern — growing concern — but I can't say that I ever saw fear, a look of 'can't-do' in our team's eyes. They were tired, they were weary, they were concerned. But they faced the challenges every day, even as those challenges weighed down on us."

Steiner answered a few questions about the hospital system's courage in the face of the virus and his part in keeping the Phoebe Family motivated as it faced seemingly insurmountable odds.

ALBANY HERALD: As you look back over the past year, what are some of the things that come to mind as it realities to COVID-19?

SCOTT STEINER: There were some really difficult times. I sometimes read back over my notes — some days, in the mornings as we prepared for a meeting, I'd try to capture some of my thoughts. Some of those are really hard to read. Looking at things strictly from the human side of things, it was a really tough year. But it was a beautiful year, too, when it comes to our team here at Phoebe and this community. From lines of people dropping off food, bringing us (home-made) masks, the prayer cards. I have a stack of letters here of encouragement, and one thing that I always come back to — that's stuck with me — was the term "Don't give up."

If I reflect emotionally, I think of things like going through six months of PPE in six days, being on CNN when we were one of the early hot spots, of these incredible members of the Phoebe Family. And like Dr. Enrique Lopez said, I remember how difficult it was to see people suffer, and how encouraged and overjoyed we all were on Easter Sunday when our first patient was extubated.

AH: Was there ever a point when you or the Phoebe team felt overwhelmed by it all?

SS: Overwhelmed? I can't say there was a time when we were just completely overwhelmed. I know there was concern — growing concern — but I can't say that I ever saw fear, a look of 'can't-do' in our team's eyes. They were tired, they were weary, they were concerned. But they faced the challenges every day, even as those challenges weighed down on us. There was a point in April when our three ICUs were used for COVID patients. Then we added a fourth for COVID and then a fifth.

We were at full capacity and had 20 people in our ER who needed a bed. I knew we would have to start transferring people. I didn't want to, but we had no other choice. I got on the phone and started calling, trying to find people willing to help. I remember calling Melody Tremble in Columbus, and she said, "We'll take four right now." She called back in a few hours and said they could take four more. We got help from hospitals in Macon and others ... some did, some didn't. We probably ended up transferring 150 people over a two- to three-week period. Even when we had to go to Plan D, Plan E, Plan F ... I still didn't feel a sense of despair.

AH: The state really reached out as well, right?

SS: We started a conversation with Gov. (Brian) Kemp's office in late March, and we told them we had the Phoebe North facility available but it was not equipped for what we needed. The state partnered with us to get that facility ready, then did one better by setting up the mobile hospital (on the Phoebe North campus). The governor was in a tough position, facing tough decisions about the virus, but when you looked around at that time at who was busy (treating virus patients), it was Albany. There was an early outbreak in Rome, but we were one of the worst spots in the world during those early days.

There's a tendency for something not to feel real when it's not affecting your community, but the governor and our state officials recognized the need here, and they reached out to us in a big way.

AH: What about local officials? Was there any politicizing of the virus?

SS: Never. Chairman (Chris) Cohilas and our other elected officials have been supportive of all we've tried to do. There was a feeling of transparency by all involved; we called on community and business leaders, and there was only a desire to help.

AH: You've been lauded — and rightfully so — for the work you did in guiding Phoebe through this year. But it really has been a team effort, hasn't it?

SS: I definitely feel — I know — that I've gotten too much credit. I'm just one of 5,000 Phoebe Family members involved in (treating local COVID patients). I haven't given a single vaccine, seen a single patient, worked through nights. I'm just proud to have been associated with such fantastic people. This virus has provided an opportunity for Phoebe and its staff to be seen as a team that's up to any challenge. They have the know-how, and they showed so much grit and determination. I hope this is the only worldwide pandemic any of us ever has to contend with, but I'd like to think that this experience has prepared us for when the next one happens.

AH: Do you look back on this ever and just say "Wow!" at the enormity of what you've been through?

SS: It's really like it's too soon to get into your "deepest, darkest secrets" as it relates to the virus. People are not ready to talk about this yet. It's like the first couple of years after 9-11. What I think of mostly is the beautiful humanity of this whole experience. In some ways it seems like we've come so far in such a short time with better testing capabilities and now the vaccines. But there were days that seemed like 10 years. Some days, it was "Let's just get to 8 p.m."

AH: Are you optimistic about where we are now?

SS: Absolutely. I think the vaccines are definitely our path to herd immunity. We're going to get there through the vaccine or through enough people getting the vaccine and developing antibodies. With the Spanish flu 100 years ago, they had no vaccine. They reached herd immunity when enough people — and it takes about 80% — got the flu. I think we've reached a point where we may see surges, but I don't think they will be surges like (after the Thanksgiving/Christmas/New Years holidays) when we were treating 100 patients. We may surge back up to 40 or so, but not to what we've seen before.

AH: You told me when we talked early on during the pandemic that you felt God put you here for a reason. Still feel that way?

SS: No question. I can't say that I'm the most faithful person in the world, but I always strive to strengthen my faith. When I was in Detroit, there were times when I asked myself and I said to my wife, "I don't know why we're here." But if I hadn't gone to Detroit, I never would have been considered for this position. People say "you've had a tough entry into southwest Georgia," but I wouldn't have wanted to do this anywhere but right here.