How a small health system in rural Maryland used agility and passion to create a massive COVID response

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HAGERSTOWN, Md. — In March 2020, Meritus Health, a community health system with a singular mission to improve the health of its community, went all-in to take care of its region by using agility to surmount the fastidious challenges of a pandemic. When the public health emergency loomed, Meritus teams rallied and quickly developed the infrastructure to support the health of 200,000 people in the coming months.

"Our teams did what a community health system does, we found ways to take care of our own," said Meritus Health President and CEO Maulik Joshi, Dr.P.H. "We planned ahead, considered what was essential to take care of our community, and then they quickly acted on those needs. As the variants and surges came at us, our teams adapted. Again and again. Like other heroes, they ran to the crisis,” he said.

What transpired over the course of the next 36 months is something Joshi recalls with admiration.

His teams were able to:

  • Construct and operationalize a dedicated Regional Infection Containment Unit in 120 days. The 12,650 square-foot addition established a 20-bed, negative pressure and ventilator capable unit. It provided surge capacity during the pandemic and now stands as a long-term resource for the region.
  • In one weekend, stood-up a drive-through testing site that helped over 1,000 patients/day during COVID surges, providing almost 350,000 tests.
  • Lead the state of Maryland through both major surges of the pandemic in volume of monoclonal antibody infusions offered. Teams provided more than 4,465 infusions, many times with people traveling from hours away to get the service.
  • Cared for more than 3,500 patients within its flagship hospital, Meritus Medical Center. At times, the 300-bed hospital had more than 100 COVID patients at a time.
  • Provided the area’s largest mass vaccine clinic, and maintained it for more than two years, providing more than 150,000 vaccines to the community.

“When I look at the enormity of what our small organization was able to accomplish, I reflect with pride. I know they were driven by their passion for our community and I believe that is why our system was able respond to the needs with fierce agility,” he said. “We have had intentional discussion about how those skills and approach should translate to how we lead in the future.”

As such, he asked his employees to share their most impactful lessons learned during the past 36 months. He shared the following list, 36 lessons from 36 months of COVID, with the hopes that other systems can consider the perspectives:

  1. Think outside the box to solve problems.
  2. Anything is possible. Never say it can’t be done.
  3. Barriers are what we allow them to be.
  4. It’s okay to move before having all the answers.
  5. Figure it out and make it happen.
  6. Uncertainty can promote innovation and advancement, if you are willing to look for it.
  7. There are so many ways to serve patients outside of the traditional medical setting.
  8. Teamwork and flexibility are paramount to a success.
  9. A great team can accomplish anything together.
  10. Just Do It! Without complaint.
  11. Be patient and do the best to help.
  12. It doesn’t matter what your title is, work together.
  13. People are more resilient than you may think.
  14. We are stronger than we think.
  15. Together, we can overcome nearly impossible odds.
  16. We can do hard things.
  17. We can be responsive and flexible.
  18. Human connection matters in healing.
  19. People need to know they matter.
  20. Every person you take care of is a privilege.
  21. Every person has a story.
  22. Express gratefulness each and every day. You never know what tomorrow holds.
  23. You are responsible for the knowledge you obtain and speak to others.
  24. You have to expect changes without knowing what the outcome may be.
  25. Mental well-being is the most important thing in a crisis.
  26. Don’t take anything for granted.
  27. Appreciate the time and relationships that you have.
  28. Adapt to change quickly.
  29. Process can be identified and implemented without routine meetings.
  30. Look beyond established solutions.
  31. Leverage the importance of structured communication out to large groups.
  32. Anyone can help in all kinds of ways
  33. There is strong value in community.
  34. Change is okay.
  35. Appreciate life/living.
  36. Consider perspective always, in all ways.