Newswise — In March of 2020, the start of a global pandemic the world did not know a lot about COVID-19, how to treat it, and the tsunami of infections that were about to impact us for the next three years. 

Hackensack University Medical Center was at the epicenter of the pandemic, diagnosing New Jersey’s first COVID case in early March of 2020, and recording the state’s first death from the disease a week later. In the weeks that followed Hackensack University Medical Center, and all Hackensack Meridian medical centers saw a crushing level of infections that echoed across the country. Two weeks to flatten the curve, quickly became two years of waves of infections. 

Now as the nation marks 3 years since the start of the Covid pandemic, after more than 1 million Americans have died,  Hackensack University Medical Center experts are available to discuss lessons learned, the changing way the disease is treated, the ongoing discoveries of the long term impact of a Covid infection and long Covid, and how hospital protocol and even architecture has changed.

Medical Staff Pushed To The Brink But Resilient

The global pandemic pushed frontline medical workers to the brink. Staffing was challenging even before the pandemic, but was exacerbated by Covid. Across the country at the start of the pandemic, hospital workers were dealing with long hours putting themselves at risk to treat an unknown virus, while most other Americans were able to isolate themselves at home. The situation was made more dire by a nationwide shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE) to protect frontline staff from a virus we didn’t fully understand. Medical staff put their lives on the line daily, in addition to dealing with the emotional burden of watching people die from COVID alone.

The long term effects of working through Covid has made many medical workers leave frontline care positions, furthering already difficult staffing issues across the country. Hackensack Meridian Health has worked hard to retain experienced medical staff, offering raises and benefits, while utilizing partnerships with our own School of Medicine and nursing programs in New Jersey to continue to recruit the highest caliber of medical professionals. The network is also exploring virtual nursing programs to allow off-site nurses to handle  administrative tasks including admitting and discharge paperwork, giving the bedside nurse more time to focus on care.

Learning More About And Treating Long Covid

In the three years since the start of the pandemic it has become apparent some people suffer debilitating long covid, long after they have beat the infection. Since its founding in August 2021, Hackensack Meridian Health’s Covid Recovery Center at Hackensack University Medical Center has treated close to 400 patients for long Covid, a post infection inflammatory syndrome. Long Covid patients have a wide range of symptoms but the most common reasons for seeking treatment at the Covid Recovery Center include brain fog, fatigue and shortness of breath, especially with exertion. Symptoms that studies show continue to keep some Americans out of the workforce.  “Brain fog patients have trouble with short term memory, and completing tasks which require calculations or sequential steps,” said Jonathan Shammash, MD, MACP, Medical Director of HMH’s Covid Recovery Center, and Director, Internal Medicine Resident Practice at Hackensack University Medical Center. “Some patients forget where they are when they are out walking or driving. It can be debilitating and a major reason long Covid patients haven’t returned to work.” Other reasons long Covid patients remain outside of the workforce are fatigue and shortness of breath especially in jobs that require physical exertion.

Changing Hospital Architecture For The Next Pandemic

The New York metropolitan area was among the hardest-hit areas in the country during the COVID-19 pandemic. As a result, the Hackensack University Medical Center’s new Helena Theurer Pavilion’s design was modified, in real time, during construction, so that with just the stroke of a key flip of a switch, the entire Pavilion can be converted to a negative-pressure facility.  A negative-pressure space - which is occupied by patients with airborne infectious illnesses such as COVID-19, tuberculosis and measles - have special exhaust systems to prevent air from escaping and potentially affecting more people with a contagious virus.  This is a lesson learned during the covid pandemic when hospital staff was improvising ways to create ventilation by removing windows, drilling holes and inserting additional air filters.

The new surgical space kept lessons from the pandemic in mind in other ways allowing hospital rooms to be stocked and a patient's vitals to be monitored from outside the room allowing hospital staff to do some portions of their job without entering a patient’s room, preserving PPE that must be worn and disposed of each time someone enters a patient room. 

Hackensack Meridian’s Center for Discovery & Innovation Makes New Covid Discoveries

Hackensack Meridian’s Center for Discovery & Innovation (CDI) has been at the forefront of research into Covid since the start of the pandemic.  Today CDI is working with academic and industry colleagues across the New York metro area to prepare for future pandemics. The Metropolitan AntiViral Drug Accelerator (MAVDA) brings together CDI, Rockefeller University, Columbia University, Rutgers University and industry partners like Merck and Alligos Therapuetics to find orally administered drugs for COVID-19 and other coronaviruses which may pose a threat in the future.  MAVDA is funded by grants by the National Institute of Health.

At the start of the pandemic, CDI quickly innovated during COVID, changed the paradigm and created solutions for patients including diagnostics, viral variant screening, and the development of therapies, which assisted the Hackensack Meridian on the clinical side of the pandemic fight, including developing major breakthroughs like the state’s first rapid COVID test, reducing wait time for results from days to just a few hours. Additionally, the network developed nearly a dozen clinical trials for COVID therapies, including convalescent plasma therapy, while the Hackensack Meridian Health network treated more COVID patients than any other health network in New Jersey. 

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