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Hana Hakim, MD, St. Jude Infection Prevention and Control medical director, works with colleagues to establish and manage policies to protect the St. Jude community from COVID-19.

COVID-19 Preparations: Racing a Pandemic

As COVID-19 spread around the globe, St. Jude prepared a response.

By Mary Powers & Elizabeth Jane Walker; Photos by Seth Dixon, Ann-Margaret Hedges & Justin Veneman

In early January 2020, Hana Hakim, MD, of St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, heard reports of a mysterious pneumonia that had sickened dozens of people. The outbreak was halfway around the world in Wuhan, China.

“At that point the news registered with me, but not as a threat to our patients or staff,” recalled Hakim, an infectious disease specialist, researcher and medical director of St. Jude Infection Prevention and Control.

But as reports on the respiratory illness escalated, Hakim’s apprehension grew. The pneumonia was soon linked to a novel coronavirus. Cases were appearing outside of Wuhan.

“My concern rose to a high level when it appeared the virus could transmit efficiently from person to person,” she says. “Even more concerning was the potential viral spread from asymptomatic or mildly symptomatic people. That brought home the pandemic potential of this virus.”

The threat took on new meaning January 21, when a person in Washington became the first reported U.S. case.

Guard at gate with visitor
nurses check patient families for COVID exposure

St. Jude values at work

As storm clouds gathered, St. Jude faculty and staff began working around the clock to thwart the pandemic’s threat. Given the hundreds of employees serving daily in patient-care areas, swift action was required to help protect patients while allowing lifesaving work to continue.

In a 72-hour period, a space in the St. Jude Garden was transformed into a first-of-its-kind, off-campus drive-through testing center for employees who might be infected. Upon confirmation that individuals with no symptoms might spread the virus, St. Jude launched an unprecedented program for random testing of clinical staff. The tests provided an additional safety measure to the symptom screen that all employees received each day.

To further reduce infection risk for patients and staff, St. Jude drastically curtailed the number of people coming onto campus. Although the hospital corridors were quieter than usual, a hum of energy emerged from the campus’ central hub of activity and decision-making: the St. Jude Incident Command Center.

“We adjusted the entire campus,” says Colette Hendricks, Clinical Operations vice president. “Facilities, access, screenings, vendors, eating arrangements—everything—and we had to do it in a very short amount of time.”

Aditya Gaur, MD, St. Jude Occupational Health medical director

Challenges like this can be physically draining. But if you believe in something—and every day you come to work and are surrounded by people with the same passion to do everything it takes for the safety of patients, families and staff—one keeps going.

Aditya Gaur, MD


Protecting patients

Children already struggling with life-threatening diseases now had their fragile routines thrown off-kilter by the looming crisis. At St. Jude, patients and families rose to the challenge, displaying a level of strength that inspired hospital staff.

 As the pandemic progressed, St. Jude had to place a protective bubble around the campus. That meant limiting the number of caregivers, visitors or siblings allowed in the hospital and its housing facilities. A testing program was also instituted for patients and families.

In the housing facilities, St. Jude staff raced to obtain additional cleaning supplies, hand sanitizer, wipes and shelf-stable foods.

“I know how a natural disaster unfolds,” says Caron Byrd, JD, director of Housing and Patient Services. “But the shortage of supplies around the country—such as the scarcity of toilet tissue, for instance—I’d never seen or experienced anything like that before.”

As the virus spread throughout the community, St. Jude suspended the use of grocery shuttles and food delivery services for families. Instead, refrigerated and freezer food-storage trucks were parked at Target House, one of the hospital’s housing facilities. Patient families chose foods they needed from a shopping list. Staff members then “shopped” from the in-house items and delivered the requested groceries to patients’ rooms or apartments.

Meanwhile, in the hospital, workers employed many tactics to create a safe environment, including using UV light to sterilize and kill microbiological contaminants.

“After we clean and sanitize the rooms, we put the ultraviolet machine in the area to let the blue lights kill any remaining germs,” says Curt Vargo, Environmental Services director. “UV is an additional layer of protection after a patient’s room has been cleaned.”  

Cleaning patient room

Driven by passion

As the pandemic unfolded, the hours were long for St. Jude employees and the families who waited for them at home. The tasks to accomplish seemed overwhelming at times. But the St. Jude community pulled together to keep infection rates low.

“Challenges like this can be physically draining,” says Aditya Gaur, MD, St. Jude Occupational Health medical director. “But if you believe in something—and every day you come to work and are surrounded by people with the same passion to do everything it takes for the safety of patients, families and staff—one keeps going.” 

This article appears in the Autumn 2020 edition of Promise.