One Year Later: Reflections and Lessons Learned from the COVID-19 Pandemic

By Alexandra Becker

One year ago this month, the Greater Houston area saw its first positive case of COVID-19. Since then, Memorial Hermann Health System’s hospitals, urgent care centers and clinics have cared for more than 250,000 patients with suspected or positive COVID-19 disease. Thanks to the courage and resilience of our frontline workers, we have saved numerous lives. Sadly, we have also fought losing battles with the virus, mourning alongside our community for the fathers, mothers, sisters, brothers, aunts, uncles, grandparents and children gone too soon.

It has been a devastating twelve months, but we have also witnessed true heroism, generosity beyond measure from members of our community and colleagues across the globe, as well as unyielding hope for brighter days ahead.

“Our people are my heroes, and they have been on so many occasions,” said Dr. David Callender, President and CEO of Memorial Hermann Health System. “Particularly early on, in the face of a lack of knowledge about what we were truly facing, they put on their mask, put on their gowns, washed their hands, put on their eye shields, and they got to work. They embraced the fact that we are all in this together and we have a responsibility to the people we serve—we’re going to do the best we can, under the safest conditions we can, to stop the impact of this disease and to take care of the people who need to be in the hospital during this very difficult time.”

Since the pandemic began, Memorial Hermann, along with the rest of the world, had to adapt quickly—again and again—as new information became available, specifically about the impact of the disease as well as best practices for treating it. Since then, we’ve gained considerable knowledge about how to fight COVID-19, from convalescent plasma to monoclonal antibodies to innovative uses of old drugs and therapies.  

“This disease is different than a lot of other respiratory diseases that we’ve dealt with in the past,” Callender said. “We started with a plan that was designed for pandemic flu, and then adapted it as we moved forward. For example, in the beginning we thought we were going to run out of ventilators, but now we know one of the worst things we can do is to put a patient on a ventilator too early.”

As a system, numerous accommodations were also put into place to help our frontline workers better care for patients while also protecting everyone inside our facilities. Twelve months later, those new practices and procedures continue to evolve.

“First, we needed to accommodate the additional volume of patients,” Callender said. “The number of COVID-19 positive patients has gone up and down, but overall there has been an incremental add. And we’ve put numerous additional safety measures in place which have created an additional strain on our operations and our people. We’ve had to make adjustments in the way that we operate on a daily basis and incorporate those changes into our daily routine, and we continue to do so.”

Callender added that a bright spot in the pandemic has been the level of collaboration he’s witnessed and has been honored to be a part of.

“Even as we were watching the pandemic develop in those early days, the leaders of the health systems based in the Texas Medical Center knew that it would be in Houston at some point, and we all came together to discuss what that would look like,” Callender recalled. “We knew that each individual system probably didn’t have everything we needed to effectively combat the pandemic, and so we talked about what we could do to share materials, resources, and particularly knowledge and information that would help us all. Those early discussions turned into daily discussions, during which time we would report on what was happening, what we were seeing and learning, and where we had challenges. Then we worked together to address those challenges.”

Callender said that the same level of unprecedented collaboration took place among colleagues around the country and the world, with hospitals here in Houston learning valuable lessons from healthcare providers in Italy and New York, where the pandemic hit harder earlier.

“They were all willing to share what they were seeing, what they were experiencing, and the gaps they had to address,” Callender said. “That helped us prepare, and it gave us a better idea of what we would be facing. I think we benefitted from some of their most significant stresses and challenges because we did have a little more time to prepare—we weren’t pushed to some of the limits that they were pushed to.”

It has been a long twelve months, but a year after it all began, there are now three COVID-19 vaccines approved for Emergency Use Authorization by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA)—an incredible feat, and a reason for hope.

“Within just a matter of months, we used technology that had been developed over the previous 20 years and quickly adapted it, and now we will be able to gain control of the spread of this disease,” Callender said. “To me, that’s just amazing.”

Still, Callender stressed that until a much larger portion of the population becomes vaccinated, the pandemic will not be over. He reiterated the importance of every person continuing to practice the proven safety measures that slow the spread of COVID-19, including social distancing, wearing a mask, and washing your hands. He added that he will forever be grateful for these sacrifices made by our community.

“I want to say thank you to the members of the public who have engaged in this fight with us,” he said. “The fact that so many people have been willing to disrupt their routines and their lives, have worn masks and isolated themselves—it has made a huge difference in terms of the impact of this pandemic. It’s limited the number of deaths, it’s limited the spread of disease, and it has helped us get to the point where we now have an opportunity to control it more effectively moving forward.”

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