PALM BAY, Fla. — More than one year into the COVID-19 pandemic, hospital systems around the country are breathing a sigh of relief as the vaccine rollout lessens the strain on patient capacity.

What You Need To Know

  • A command center at Health First helps with navigating pandemic

  • COVID patients in the Palm Bay unit are put in negative-pressure rooms

  • COVID patients are not mixed with other kinds of patients

  • Teamwork and communication create a sense of community

As the pandemic was spreading around the world and eventually into the United States, community hospital system Health First in Brevard County started a command center with dozens of people among its approximately 9,000 associates to figure out how to prepare. 

When the pandemic made its way to Florida, Health First Palm Bay Intensive Care Unit Charge Nurse Carla Meza didn't hesitate to join the COVID unit, which now has treated hundreds of patients and still is working to help people recover.

“There are scary points to it, of course, and some really sad times,” she said. “To be a health-care provider, during a pandemic, it’s been exciting for me," she said.

With the hospital shut down to visitors, Meza tried something new.

“I started calling the family members and FaceTiming them inside the room, even when the patients were intubated," Meza said. "One of the patients passed away. One of them that I did this for, walked out of here, but I actually have been close with both of them now.”

Many of those patients were treated in negative-pressure rooms. The hospital is still using those rooms for COVID-19 patients.

“Any bacteria and particles, it gets sucked outside and filtered," Meza said.

About 70 of these rooms were created at the height of the pandemic, when cases topped 100 across all four hospitals, but over the year, the hospital system has treated thousands of COVID-19 patientsAt last check, the hospital system has fewer than 20 COVID-19 patients.

"With that command center and having that group of talented folks that were able to reach out and bring in that equipment, we were never in an area where we had to mix folks. Health First Palm Bay Director of Nursing Jim Carberry said. “They (COVID patients) were in the negative-pressure rooms. We set them up quickly." 

The hospital also ordered about 20 extra devices, including ventilators, to help patients breathe.

“You don’t join the military and be surprised when there’s a war,” said John Tucker, director of clinical operations at Health First of Palm Bay. “Our health-care professionals dug their heels in and took care of what the community’s needs were."

In the emergency department, staff still separate patients who might be COVID-positive while treating other emergencies.

Registered nurse Natalie Avendano is still on the frontlines after losing a loved one to the virus, and her brother contracted COVID-19 twice but has recovered.

“Something within me to want to just help my community and just know that everybody that I come across, I just want to treat them like they’re my family members," Avendano said. "I rely on my faith to give me that support to continue on and try to support my team as well.”

The consensus is that teamwork and communication among the Health First associates, including about 500 at the Palm Bay facilities, have been vital during the pandemic in a hospital with a sense of community.

“It’s very difficult and trying but it’s the most rewarding thing in my life, besides my children," Meza said.