Looking back at 2020, SSM Health Wisconsin Regional President Damond Boatwright says one word resonates with him: Resilience. “We really had to be resilient to work through the myriad of problems, issues and obstacles thrown our way throughout the pandemic,” reflected Boatwright.

Those challenges came early and often as COVID-19 took hold in Wisconsin. Facing challenges in finding enough personal protective equipment and staying up-to-date on new treatments for the novel virus, SSM Health made changes across all levels of its operations. Teams transitioned to offer virtual health care in new ways. 

Across the organization, everyone adapted to new guidelines, screenings, and other changes meant to keep staff, patients, and the community safe. Aside from operational changes, leaders also kept a laser-like focus on providing adequate support for staff and providers who spent countless hours, days and weeks providing patient care while navigating their own personal challenges brought on by the pandemic. 

 “I have tremendous pride in my staff. The selfless work and huge sacrifices made were truly inspiring,” he said. “Thank God for the healthcare worker!”

A year later, some of these challenges are less intense. Health care systems are in a better place to manage additional case surges as case numbers across the state are on a downward trend. The COVID-19 vaccines bring more protection and hope that the end of the pandemic could soon be in sight.

“The vaccines are truly a shot of hope – not just for our health care workers, but for everyone – that our lives will slowly return to a new normal,” says Boatwright.

Part of SSM Health’s vaccination effort includes equitable distribution of vaccine. This includes community education and outreach efforts to communities of color, as well as vulnerable individuals. SSM Health is actively working with community partners, other health organizations and Public Health departments across the state to answer questions about and offer access to the vaccines. For members of the Black community, that includes honest conversations around long-held distrust of the medical community.

“I know there is a lot of distrust in our community – and rightly so – stemming from past violations like the Tuskegee experiments, a study of syphilis in Black men that was ultimately deemed unethical after participants were not provided treatment,” said Boatwright. “My hope is that by having open, honest discussions about existing distrust we can help dispel myths around these vaccines, while building a new trust between the Black community and our health care professionals.”

These discussions are ongoing with local Black churches and community groups. Boatwright regularly speaks with local community leaders and hopes their advocacy for vaccination will help others understand the importance of immunization.

While the vaccination efforts are an important step in ending the pandemic, Boatwright and other health experts warn against letting your guard down. As the COVID-19 virus continues to spread and mutate into new variants, it’s still important to wear your mask, avoid gathering with people you don’t live with, and maintain physical distance when you are out.

“That actually keeps me up at night – additional variants taking hold in our community. These mutations are coming sooner than I would have hoped,” cautions Boatwright.

While this community health work is vital to pandemic recovery, Boatwright and SSM Health are also working on achieving health equity and rooting out racism from health care. Over the summer the health system implemented a new policy barring patients and visitors from discriminating against health care workers. In early February, SSM Health took their commitment further, signing a pledge alongside the Catholic Health Association and 22 other Catholic health systems indicating the organizations’ continued commitment to confront racism and achieve health equity.

“Health equity is important to me on a deeply personal level,” says Boatwright. “While I have absolutely seen the impact racial disparities and medical racism has on the health of our community, as a Catholic, I fundamentally believe there is dignity in each and every life. It is our duty to honor that dignity through our work.”

Despite the challenges and obstacles his organization has faced this past year, Boatwright remains hopeful that we will all move into the next phases of pandemic recovery and find a “new normal.”

“The pandemic has taught me very important lessons, but above all, I’ve learned I should remain optimistic about the future,” he says. “This keeps those around me encouraged throughout any ordeal.”

Looking ahead to that new normal, Boatwright hopes others will join his optimistic outlook and work together in taking care of our community, noting that we are all stronger together.