Dr. Andrew Thomas has spent his career preparing for a contagious outbreak like the coronavirus pandemic. Now that it's here, he's taking it one day at a time—and he's proud of his team's work.
At the helm of a many-faceted health care system, Dr. Andrew Thomas feels the enormous impact of the COVID-19 pandemic nearly every waking moment. He starts with a simple formula: 30, 6 and 1.
“That’s 30 minutes of exercise, six hours of sleep and one day at a time,” says Thomas, chief clinical officer at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center and senior associate president for health sciences. “I can maintain this pace for a while. This is what I’ve been preparing for 29 years.”
Thomas and other OSU health leaders went through vigorous training to prepare for previous contagions but, “this is by far the most unprecedented one in my career. We’re in a sprint. ”
Being surrounded by people with whom he loves working and who face the challenge together sustains him, he says.
Rapidly shifting information and guidelines have required the organization to be extremely nimble, and that buoys Thomas. “It’s not easy by any means, but at the same time I feel like we have an organizational structure in flow and function that I’m actually quite proud of. There is a very structured approach to a very chaotic situation.”Information is critical. Read our latest reporting on the coronavirus response here.
The pace has been relentless. An OSU team of four epidemiologists mounted a response when COVID appeared in China in January. “The day after the first case was announced, we had 75 to 80 people on the phone,” Thomas recalls. Shortly after, the medical center moved into an incident command structure.
Thomas understands why guidelines are changing so rapidly. As scientists learn more about the virus, public health and government leaders can more finely tune their messages. He thinks back to early March, when based on scientific knowledge at the time, public health experts recommended to Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine’s administration that the 2020 Arnold Sports Festival and Classic be closed to spectators. “That seemed like it was radical. Now every bar and restaurant is closed.”
He likens the COVID spread to watching a global snowstorm. “All I know is that right now it’s snowing really hard in Italy, and it snowed really hard in China last month. It’s snowing in New York and San Francisco and Seattle, so I can see what the snowstorm looks like. The benefit of this is that, in this situation, there is a lot we can do, and frankly, I am quite proud of the fact that we’ve done it with social distancing and really strong public messages. By our action, we can change the snowstorm.”
Like other health care organizations, OSU is taking steps to preserve precious resources such as ventilators, personal protective equipment and staff capacity. By eliminating elective procedures, system surgeries are down about 70 percent, freeing up ventilators, supplies and people.Stay up to date with the region’s business scene. Subscribe to Columbus CEO’s weekly newsletter.
Medical students have been pulled from surgical rotations so they are not consuming operating room equipment resources. The medical center issued new guidelines that those providing routine care no longer must wear N95 masks, but can use surgical ones.
Thomas knows “what we need now is not necessarily what we’ll need in a month.” If the 5 percent of people with the virus who require intensive care unit beds and respirators were sick at once, that translates to 2,500 beds in Central Ohio, he says. “There are not 2,500 beds in Central Ohio.”
He acknowledges a worst-case reality is scary, “but if I sit here trembling at my desk being anxious about that, I won’t get anything done. I’m taking this one day at a time.”
Thomas appreciates the long-standing collaboration among Central Ohio’s four hospital systems. “We all want to be prepared together. We want best practices among all our systems. What if my family shows up in their ER?”
Laurie Allen is a freelance writer.