Editor’s Note: One of the sectors most impacted by the pandemic — and one facing a great number of questions moving forward — is healthcare. We put some questions to Baystate Health President and CEO Dr. Mark Keroack, who has become a very visible leader during this crisis and was recently named one of BusinessWest’s Healthcare Heroes for 2020.
BusinessWest: Dr. Keroack, already we’re seeing a great deal of optimism and expectation accompanying the arrival of vaccines in this nation and this region. What are your thoughts on the impact these vaccines will have on the broader economic picture in this region and when that impact will be seen?
Dr. Keroack: The vaccines represent a major scientific breakthrough, and they are the beginning of the end of the pandemic. Economies depend on consumer confidence, and, therefore, I have always seen recovery from the pandemic and recovery of the economy as one and the same. Removing the pandemic will boost confidence and enable the economy to recover. What is less clear is which businesses will have survived the terrible stress test of 2020 to even be able to recover.
BusinessWest: ‘Normal’ is a word we hear a lot these days, as in ‘when things return to normal.’ With the vaccines now here, is there any more clarity on when ‘normal’ — as in pre-COVID — may return?
“The light at the end of the tunnel is real, but it is still months away, and we are now in a perilous situation with more virus circulating in the community than we had last spring.”
Dr. Keroack: I believe that when a majority of people — more than 70% — receive the vaccine and are immune, case numbers will fall precipitously because the virus will not be able to find new hosts easily. That will enable governmental leaders to lift the restrictions we all have been struggling with these past several months. I suspect that will happen in late spring or early summer.
BusinessWest: Dr. Keroack, this has been a trying year for the healthcare system and hospitals in general. Can you in any way anticipate what 2021 will be like — both in terms of providing services and from a business (bottom-line) perspective?
Dr. Keroack: I think we should expect consumer attitudes to be changed in the wake of the pandemic. For several months, people have been getting used to different ways of getting their needs fulfilled, whether it is virtual visits, remote working, takeout dining, or online retail. I think this will put greater pressure on traditional bricks-and-mortar enterprises, including Baystate, to revisit their business models.
BusinessWest: In many ways, you have been the face of the pandemic in this region, often sending out strong statements on the need to socially distance, wear masks, and take the steps necessary to stem the spread of the virus. What is your message to the community now, 10 months after the start of the pandemic, and with what many are calling a light at the end of the tunnel in sight?
Dr. Keroack: The light at the end of the tunnel is real, but it is still months away, and we are now in a perilous situation with more virus circulating in the community than we had last spring. Many people, especially older people, are doing what they need to do to protect themselves, but many more are minimizing or still denying the risks of infection. It is now more important than ever to follow the guidance on masking, social distancing, and handwashing. Furthermore, we need to restrict our visits to indoor spaces that are not our homes, particularly if masks are not being worn.
BusinessWest: The governor recently rolled back, if that’s the proper phraseology, many of the restrictions on certain types of businesses. Do you believe further restrictions will be needed before the current situation improves?
Dr. Keroack: I think it is likely that the latest restrictions will not be enough to slow down the spread of the virus. We are seeing that some mayors are issuing regulations that go beyond what the governor recently proposed, and I suspect he too will have to roll back things still further before we are through the current crisis.
BusinessWest: Continuing with that thought, many businesses have closed over the past several months, and many more are barely hanging on amid the restrictions placed on them. It’s often been said that elected leaders have to choose between saving the economy and saving lives. Is there any way, in your opinion, to effectively do both?
Dr. Keroack: There are examples of countries that have done both. They are characterized by high rates of rule following, easy access to testing, and financial support for people who are sick and cannot work. Many Asian countries had great success opening their economies while also driving down infection rates. Other countries, like the U.S., were more likely to object to or doubt the effectiveness of the guidelines, and we saw a lot of people deciding to exempt themselves, sometimes with disastrous consequences. We also are not consistent in terms of sick leave, so many were tempted to go to work while sick. For all these differences, it is fair to say that now nearly every country is sliding backward to higher virus levels, because even the most compliant groups get fatigued by these restrictions.
BusinessWest: As a business leader and manager of one of the region’s largest employers, can you talk about the ways this pandemic has changed business and how it’s conducted, and which of these changes may be permanent?
Dr. Keroack: I mentioned earlier the importance of flexibility and meeting the customer where they are. We have recommitted to improved customer service and easier access to care. We are still learning in healthcare to be more like more customer-friendly sectors. I also expect that the strains on the economy will cause healthcare to be examined again for being too high in cost. Baystate Health is the lowest-cost large health system in the state, and yet we still need to drive down costs further. We also need to remember that embedded in the pandemic was the George Floyd killing, which led to a reckoning with systemic racism in our country. Baystate Health as an organization has made eliminating racism and enhancing diversity, equity, and inclusion in our health system a top priority. Finally, I think we need to re-examine and improve how we do preventive public health in our state, and I hope Baystate Health can play a role there.
BusinessWest: They say adversity makes those who endure it stronger. How will this region become stronger because of this lengthy and difficult battle against COVID-19?
Dr. Keroack: If the pandemic has taught us anything, it is that we are all connected to each other. Infections historically have attacked those in lower socioeconomic groups more severely. When those infections spread easily, we all suffer when we have not dealt fully with advancing economic opportunity across all our communities. If we come out of this with a greater sense of community and togetherness, we will have gained something valuable from what was otherwise a terrible ordeal.
BusinessWest: Personally and professionally, what has it been like for you to lead a company like Baystate though this crisis? What have you learned about yourself, as a leader, if anything?
Dr. Keroack: There have been many stressful days, given the unknowns and dangers of this virus. I worry a lot about protecting our employees and see the stresses they have been going through. I am blessed with a wonderful team that has strong experience in infectious-disease management and epidemic containment. I also am gratified by the can-do attitude from so many on the front lines. They show tremendous commitment, compassion, and innovation. I think the major lessons I learned as a leader is to make sure people understand the reasons behind what we are trying to do and then to trust them to find the solutions. I have not been disappointed in that trust.