The walls in Dr. Larissa Pisney’s small office were papered with giant sticky notes. Tactics for ambulatory screening, PPE conservation, visitor policies, testing, ventilator stock, contingency staffing due to school closures and more were detailed.
“Pandemic planning is what we do,” said Dr. Michelle Barron, the medical director of infection prevention and control at UCHealth University of Colorado Hospital. Barron shepherded staff through the 2009 H1N1 outbreak (commonly called the swine flu) that caused 69 influenza-associated deaths in Colorado.
Pandemics are predictable, emerging about every 10 years, so neither Barron nor Dr. Larissa Pisney, the associate medical director of infection prevention, were surprised when the coronavirus reared up in January. They mapped out scenarios of various magnitudes much like they did 10 years earlier, with a few glaring differences.
“Today’s political and social media landscapes are so different,” said Pisney.
“The general distrust of the media and the misinformation that spreads quickly complicated things.”
“The impacts on the social structure were far more widespread, and more people were sick,” added Barron, who assumed the spokesperson role for UCHealth taking on some 50 media interviews for television, print, radio, Facebook live and even a Reddit AMA (Ask Me Anything).
“I didn’t even know what Reddit was before this,” said Barron.
Thanks to Barron’s and Pisney’s blueprints, when the first patients began arriving at UCH in March, teams were ready and the command center was activated. Pisney and Barron then began contributing regularly to all-staff and all-provider communications as policies and guidelines – everything from PPE to treatment protocols, testing guidelines and infection prevention changed almost daily.
Clamping down on visitor restrictions was particularly difficult for both Pisney and Barron.
“It’s not how we operate as health care workers,” said Pisney. “That weighs on me.”
Despite the enormous challenges, both were humbled and impressed by staff and providers.
“The human spirit is strong and in times of crisis, I saw resiliency,” said Barron.