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First Outbreak - HOAG Community Champions

By JEFF GOLDBERG, 04/21/21, 9:30AM PDT

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The day that Covid-19 became frighteningly real for most Americans came on March 11, 2020, when the global pandemic was first declared, Tom Hanks announced he had contracted the coronavirus, and the NBA shut down first a Jazz-Thunder game in Oklahoma City, then the remainder of its season.


All of the sporting world would quickly follow suit, including the United Soccer League. The Orange County Soccer Club had played their season opener just days earlier, March 6, before a sellout crowd of 3,188 at Championship Soccer Stadium. The fans that night sat uneasy, but still largely unprepared for the upending of normal life that was less than a week away from taking hold.

But for the entire clinical staff at Hoag, the alarm had sounded weeks earlier. In late January, Hoag became the hospital where the first confirmed Covid-19 patient in the state of California was treated. Leading the Infection Prevention team was Dr. Philip Robinson and his team of specialists.


“I think we had a pretty good sense,” Robinson said. “One of the things we do in infection prevention is monitor the world stage and look for events like this. We had just had Ebola [in 2014-16], and it prepared us for this type of issue. I knew it was only a matter of time. In the days and weeks before that first patient showed up, we’d already made preparations to screen travelers that had come from Wuhan, China, and that first patient actually came from Wuhan. 
“Because of the preparations we had done, we were able to get him tested and admitted to the hospital very quickly. When that patient tested positive, I guess the sensation was like standing on the edge of the Grand Canyon, and ok, we’re about to jump off and experience this entire thing unfold.”


Hoag’s Infection Prevention Manager, Melissa Garcia, was at home when Robinson called her to break the news. Within minutes. Garcia was racing to Hoag Hospital Irvine to assist.


“The biggest moment that sticks out for me was the time I got the phone call from Dr. Robinson saying we have the first Covid-positive patient in Orange County,” Garcia said. “It’s 9 o’clock at night, I get my scrubs on and head down to the hospital and I remember being there with the frontline staff, and there were a lot of questions and concerns. It was probably one of the biggest moments of my life.”
But amid all the terrible unknowns about Covid-19, Dr. Robinson and his team was prepared. With nearly a quarter-century of work and study in his field, this was a crisis Robinson had long been preparing for.


“As an infectious disease doctor, I’ve trained all my life for an event like this,” Dr. Robinson said. “To be an Infectious Disease doctor in a pandemic, this is my World Cup. This is what I’ve been trained to do. This is my life’s calling, and I’m incredibly honored to be part of the Hoag team that was able to manage this successfully.”

The Orange County Soccer Club has unveiled its new uniforms for the 2021 season – a return to competition and normalcy that both players and fans have been dreaming of for more than a year. To help introduce the new uniforms, OCSC and Hoag are celebrating their partnership by having them modeled not just by OCSC players, but by the Hoag heroes who helped shepherd the Orange County community through the darkest days of the pandemic back to the light of a bright and healthy future.


“The different nuances of shutting down the economy, the challenges with testing, vaccine rollout, all of those things were unknown,” Robinson said. “But from the moment we admitted that first patient we were in constant communication with Orange County Health Care Agency, with the CDC, and we were all learning together. We got to play a role in developing policies and procedures that to this day are still in place.”


But mastering those procedures, and keeping up with the whipsaw of treatment twists and turns as more was learned about the virus’ behavior, was a challenge even for the most-prepared.
“In Infection Prevention I had to pivot constantly in reading the latest guidelines,” Garcia said. “I was on the CDC [website] 24/7 reading things, making sure they were up-to-date and current. There were a lot of sleepless nights and phone calls. It was a very stressful time, but I’ll never have this opportunity again to come together as a community and show what we’re made of.” 

And the Orange County community indeed played an enormous role in advancing the fight against the virus. Dr. Robinson recalled the many patients who volunteered for experimental therapies that are now a regular part of the treatment regimen. But Garcia pointed to a different contribution that helped heal weary and overwhelmed Hoag staffers.


“I can’t explain the gratitude I have for the response that we got from the community,” Garcia said. “We had a lot of community members come to the organization and just try to lift the spirits of our employees by bringing them flowers or certain tokens like that. It was just the thought that shows that the community is behind us, and I’m beyond thankful for that.”


Now, over a year later, as vaccination numbers steadily increase and the state shifts population centers into the less-restrictive zones, allowing for more of the economy and entertainment infrastructure to open up, Dr. Robinson can begin to reflect on the journey from the night they treated Patient Zero.


“It’s just amazing that we have gone from knowing very little about this virus last December to 12 months later, having safe and effective vaccines,” Robinson said. “It’s been just a staggering amount of work that’s gone into that, and what a relief.


“Right now, the numbers are looking really good. I’m looking forward to the days when we can get together and watch sports in a stadium, participate as a community with each other. That’s what makes us human: To get together and cheer on our favorite team. It will be a great day when we can do that safely.”