Q&A: Unity Health President/CEO Steven Webb

501 LIFE asked Unity Health President/CEO Steven Webb a series of questions pertaining to the COVID-19 pandemic.

When did COVID-19 hit your radar at Unity Health?

We were aware of it in December and started work in January 2020. 

In January, Dr. Roddy Lochala, chief medical officer, approached me and said he wanted to devote more than 50 percent of his time to COVID-19 preparation.  

What were preparations made in the past in anticipation of a pandemic?

We worked to secure as much PPE as possible, through our vendors and by reaching out to national suppliers. We also decided to get lab testing supplies.

In addition, we looked at current vendors to see how we could use their technology to preserve PPE (i.e., the Xenex Germ-Zapping Robot, which Unity Health began using in 2018).

We started meeting with local officials in White and Jackson counties and began a daily COVID Command Center meeting of key Unity Health leaders. We implemented a daily email to medical staff about numbers, capacity and supply. 

Dr. Lochala began to lead weekly physician engagement and update forums.

We felt strongly that open, consistent and transparent communication would play a significant role in the successful management of the pandemic.  

Were any physical changes made at the hospital beginning in early March?

Yes. We built-out a new unit at our Specialty Care campus for COVID-19 patients by converting unused clinical space to a 41-bed negative pressure unit.

How were employees impacted, and how did they respond?

Associates came together to cover areas of need like a call center, the drive-thru testing, an emotional support hotline and the entrance screenings, which may have fallen outside their usual work duties. Everyone jumped in to help. 

Patient volumes decreased but our board of directors committed to protecting our associates. There have been no layoffs or furloughs. In fact, in our 53-year history, Unity Health has never had a layoff. 

Steven Webb serves as the president and chief executive officer for Unity Health, headquartered in Searcy. (Mike Kemp photo)

How many tests have been conducted on site?

Well over 10,000. We have PRC testing and have been able to secure supplies and can do up to 400 tests a day. 

On Aug. 10, Unity Health’s Newport hospital campus opened a drive-thru testing site for Jackson Country and surrounding communities.

The Searcy drive-thru testing site has been open since March. 

How many COVID-19 patients have been admitted?

More than 40 COVID-19 patients have been admitted to Unity Health since March. 

How has Unity Health been impacted (financially and otherwise) by the pandemic?

Patient volumes declined in March and April, and it harmed our revenue. We are grateful for HHS (Health and Human Services) support, and volumes are now starting to recover. Unity has weathered the storm and remains a solid organization financially.  

How has the community responded (donations of food, etc.)?

Unity Health has received donations of food, N95 and other masks, prayers in the parking lot, expressed gratitude, gift cards and support to our Foundation through the COVID-19 Support Fund.  

What have been the biggest challenges?

The biggest challenge is the unknown. There is not a great predictive model for this pandemic. Everything that has come our way, we have been able to hit head-on and handle. But we still don’t know if or when there will be a surge and what that might look like.  

How has COVID-19 changed the health system?

I have seen it strengthen our bond and relationships across departments. It has allowed us to work with new people in different areas of expertise and enhanced communication throughout the organization. We have also seen that moral support from our community is at an all-time high. 

In addition, we have had a telemedicine increase from 50/monthly to about 2,000/monthly. People have a desire and need to receive healthcare differently, and we are here to support that. 

What would you say to readers about the remainder of 2020?

We are optimistic and here to take care of all healthcare needs. That’s an area where people may have had the wrong message: that hospitals have become unsafe due to COVID-19. The takeaway really should have been, as we initially encouraged people to stay home when possible, that we were preserving supplies and space in the event of a surge. 

Please seek needed medical care. Be mindful of the recommendation to protect yourself. Wear your mask and social distance. But seek medical attention as soon as you need it. 

For the rest of 2020, I am very optimistic. Unity Health has responded as well or better than any organization to COVID-19, and I know we are up for any challenge.