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TEAMWORK – PEF member Kevin Wilson and other workers volunteering at the Javits Center temporary hospital for COVID-19 patients in New York City learned to work as a team and formed lasting friendships.

Social worker’s skills rise to meet challenges at Javits Center hospital

By SHERRY HALBROOK

Kevin Wilson, a licensed master social worker 1 and PEF council leader at Long Island Developmental Disabilities Services Organization in Centereach, said he was very surprised one morning in April at work to find an email saying that he had been selected for possible deployment to work as a volunteer at the emergency COVID-19 hospital that had been established by the US military at the Jacob Javits Conference Center in New York City.

“I’m considered an essential employee, in fact OPWDD considers us all to be essential employees, so I was confused about why I was getting this message,” Wilson said.

After checking around, Wilson discovered that he and two colleagues on Long Island had received this invitation, but the other two had declined it.

“So, I called the Javits Center and told them that I’m an essential employee and still working and asked them about the email. They said, ‘We need your help.’”

Married and the father of young children, Wilson took a night to think it over before deciding to take on the challenge.

He went to the city April 19 and began working at the center April 20 doing patient intake and discharge planning for the most challenging cases, mostly patients with no homes to return to after they no longer needed hospitalization.

He worked seven days a week, from 7 a.m. to 9 or 10 p.m. from April 20 until May 1 when the last patients had been discharged or transported to other hospitals for continuing care.  He was housed at a local hotel.

It turns out that Wilson had previous experience working for a hospital in the city as a discharge planner, and his familiarity with the city and surrounding areas were also a great advantage.

Four other social workers were recruited from temp agencies to help with the work, but only two of them were licensed social workers.

Wilson was appointed the lead case management with responsibility for planning the intake and discharge work, directing the other four team members, attending top level staff meetings and working at a command center where he could trouble shoot problems and challenges as they arose.

“I didn’t see anyone there that I knew,” Wilson said. What he did find was an operation that involved a host of federal, state, city and private agencies and organizations that all had different structures, rules, approaches and views about how the operation should be managed.  They included the U.S. Public Health Service, the U.S. Army, the U.S. Navy, the Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA), the National Disaster Medical System (NDMS), New York City Emergency Management, Northwell Health, the NYS Health Department and the NYC Health Department.

“I went to all of the briefings,” Wilson said.  “We all had to cooperate and work in tandem to fulfill the mission.”

His team “did patient intakes on new patients as they came in.  It was our responsibility to see that every patient who was discharged went safely to a place where they could complete their recovery in isolation.  For people who had no homes that usually meant a homeless shelter or a hotel.

“We had to meet with every patient and that meant being completely suited up” in masks, gowns, disposable booties, etc.

Wilson said he was very impressed by the efficiency of the military personnel in maintaining the process of disinfecting everything.  “They sprayed us every time we touched our mask, or took off a glove.”

Although the hospital and its mission were in emergency mode, the paperwork and accompanying rules were not flexible.

The social workers had to fill out several versions of one form including a 16-page NYC Homeless Services form for many patients.  “My team members were filling in the forms by hand and those forms were rejected.  We were told they must be typewritten.  So we had to go back and do them over again.  Then, we were told that the forms we were using were for 2018, and we must use 2019 forms, so again they all had to be done over,” Wilson said.

By the time Wilson and the case management team was assembled, patients had already been admitted and military personnel had taken some information when the patients came in, but the social workers had to go back and take and report the full information.

“Our backs were up against the wall, and we had only five people to go out and meet with patients.  So, the state Health Department recruited one more person for our team.”

Then, five nurses from different parts of the country, who were part of the NDMS, suddenly showed up.  “They were not social workers and they did not know New York City, but they were there to help.  So, it was my job to give them an orientation and quick training,” Wilson said.

The time he spent there was exhausting, but Wilson said he is very glad he did it.

For one thing, Wilson said he has come back with many new friends that he expects to keep in touch with.

“Pulling all of those personalities and skill sets together to do the job created personal bonds for life,” he said. “It completely changed us.  I think I will be more open to new challenges that pertain to assisting in national disaster zones.”

The most important practical lessons the experience taught him, Wilson said, is that “discharge begins at intake.  Bring us in from the start.  Don’t wait to bring in discharge planners when the operation is ready to close down. And you need discharge planners who know the area and who know who the local players are, such as the agencies, shelters, hotels and service providers.”

Most of all, Wilson said, he is very happy to have had this experience because he could make an important difference for people who really needed his help.

“Part of the oath we take as social workers is to promote social justice for all people, and I did that.  For many patients, I was there to derail a process that might have put them out on the street.  I think it was important to make sure every person, no matter how poor they might be or what problems they had, was able to have a safe place to rest their head at night.”