A Team Member Perspective: Mission first, People always – leading West’s response to a global pandemic
Prior to joining West in 2015, I had a 24-year military career where I gained considerable experience in crisis management. During that time, I spent several years deployed overseas, spending long periods of time away from my family while serving in challenging environments. My service also included supporting the City of Philadelphia and surrounding counties during several declared States of Emergency. We spent many days and night running 24/7 crisis and emergency response operations including sending soldiers and vehicles on missions in support of local emergency services, first responder, and healthcare personnel.
I am currently West’s Senior Director of Enterprise Risk Management and Security, which includes responsibility for Business Continuity and Crisis Management. I can honestly say that leading our global response to the Covid-19 pandemic crisis were among the most difficult two years in my professional career.
A new virus in China
It was mid-January 2020, when we received our first email from our regional office in Singapore, informing us there was a virus in China that might impact our operations out there. We had an existing pandemic preparedness plan that we had created for the SARs epidemic which we dusted off, updated, and shared with our local and regional safety professionals.
By the end of January, the Chinese government started to impose restrictions on travel, close businesses, and ports. We could not operate our QingPu manufacturing site or move materials into or out of China. We needed to manage the impact from a production and supply chain perspective. A key focus was customer communications and we reassured them that we would not let them down even though we did not know how long the restrictions would last.
We activated our Crisis Management and Pandemic Teams in early February and really had no idea what was about to happen in the months ahead.
Covid starts to spread
Fast forward to March and S. Korea and Italy became hotspots for the COVID virus. Cases began to sweep rapidly across Europe and we started to hear about one or two cases in the US. The World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global pandemic and we understood we had a global crisis on our hands.
The Crisis Management Team included representatives from most business functions and regional pandemic response teams were activated to address the emerging cases and disparate health authority guidance and requirements across the globe. We had formal update meetings three times a week and I continuously reported cases and our response activities to the senior leadership team.
Face masks, social distancing, handwashing, and temperature checks
My sole focus was the pandemic 24/7, it was all consuming. The importance of PPE started to become clear, and we made the decision to purchase large quantities of masks, before they became mandatory almost everywhere. In the early days, outside of AP, there was resistance to wearing masks. Our manufacturing processes can be physically demanding, and it just was not comfortable to wear masks for several hours at a time.
During the course of the pandemic response, I participated in and led several hundred presentations involving regional and corporate senior leaders. We started every update meeting with a clear reminder that it was critically important for West to keep operations running, despite the challenges we faced: Mission first, People always. It was something I learned during my military career. At West, we say everything we produce has a patient’s name on it, but it also has a team member’s name on it. Across the pandemic we used that concept to encourage people to come to work, to take care of themselves and their families so that we would not let down our customers and ultimately the patients who depended on our products.
Our regional teams notified me of every single team member COVID case. We investigated each one to understand whether it could have been transmitted on one of our sites. I texted every case to CEO and COO. The fact they wanted to know about every case, regardless of if the team member was working in our plants or remotely, speaks volumes about how much they cared about our people.
Early on we decided to pay our infected team members for 14 days while they were isolated and another 14 days to care for any family members who were infected. It was the right thing to do for our people, but it also reduced the risk if an infected team member coming into work and causing an outbreak because they were worried about their paycheck.
We asked our office-based team members to work from home. That generated a new set of challenges. Did they have the right equipment? Could they stay connected? What support did they need to be able to work effectively? The schools were closed, so people were juggling working with home schooling and childcare. We wanted to be flexible, but at the same time we were aware our manufacturing team members had the same challenges at home but had to keep coming into our plants. It was all very complex to work through.
Because of West’s critical role in the healthcare industry, we were permitted to keep operating as long as we put in place certain safety precautions. Our regional pandemic response teams were vitally important to keep pace with the rapidly evolving case rates and varying national and local health authority restrictions and requirements. What was being required in Asia-Pacific region was different to Europe, to the US and to South America. Our phased approach framework kept us aligned with the appropriate control measures based on local risk and health authority requirements.
Racing towards a vaccine
As the world was racing to a vaccine, we realized West had a critical role to play in getting it a vaccine to the market. People were burning out, there was a lot of fatigue as our team members worked extremely hard to manufacture as many stoppers and plungers as humanly possible. I know that the importance of our mission and our purpose helped us pull through. We believed in what we were doing. We kept renewing our focus on the patients and families out there, with loved ones on ventilators in hospitals, and recognizing how challenging things were for them.
Light at the end of the tunnel
By mid-summer we started to feel we had got a handle on the situation. We were working with Doctor Bill Buchta, who was our Corporate Medical Advisor, and many other global organizations to ensure we had the most current information, updated procedures, and that we implemented prudent control measures. Dr. Buchta was in a circle of thought leaders, other physicians, and consultants, all operating in the pandemic space. Knowing we were implementing everything we needed to, we started to see the light at the end of the tunnel. Cases were falling, the vaccines were here.
The Delta Depression
Unfortunately, by early Fall, we were starting to see cases rise again. Initially there was a surge in India, where the vaccine was not yet available, and then the wave stared to roll across each region.
We were better prepared this time, and sure enough a few weeks later it spread to Europe and then the US. It was the Delta variant that taught us this crisis was different. A typical crisis lasts for a shorter duration with a clear start and end point. Something bad happens, there is an incident response phase and then you move into recovery, restoration, and business as usual.
What was so defeating about the Delta variant was a sense of here we go again. We came to understand Covid did not have an endpoint and this new wave was marked by more rapid rates of infection. It was going to be a cyclical crisis that appears to be in an endless loop. Psychologically it was tough.
Looking after myself
We certainly did not have all the answers ourselves. Through Dr Bill Buchta we arranged for a variety of experts to come in and run education sessions. This included a psychologist who talked about the impact Covid was having on mental health and wellbeing, whether people were onsite, working from home, essential workers, and their families.
I knew that I also needed to look after myself and needed to remain resilient. I internalized a lot of the responsibility of managing West through the pandemic crisis. I did not want to let anyone down – team members, the executive team, our customers, and patients. I knew I was not the only one feeling fatigued and stressed. I started to share how I was feeling with teammates and a couple of executives. I was able to manage stress by working out in the gym and in the evenings walking my dog while listen to audiobooks or podcasts. These things helped me.
Local data became available
People were clearly facing COVID fatigue and were desperate for life to get back to normal. They were fed up with wearing masks, social distancing, and the numerous restrictions and disparate guidance from local and national authorities.
When more localized data became available, we were able to move away from a global response and tailor our control measures to local community risk– and this was a total game changer.
John Hopkins University had a great pandemic page that looked at case rates in specific states, countries, counties and eventually communities. We refreshed data daily, tying which Covid controls were mandated to a location’s community case rates as this reflected more of the local site’s risk level. It was no longer a one size fits all approach. I heard reports of people clapping and cheering when they heard they no longer needed to wear face masks. We remained confident in our policies and procedures, the guidance we received from our medical advisor, and the adjusted controls we tied to the local community risk data.
We played our part
Looking back, I am very proud of our resilience as One West Team. We allowed our values and purpose to guide us through this very difficult journey. As a result, we never let a customer down while manufacturing more products than ever before and while maintaining high quality.
We played a critical role in delivering tens of hundreds of millions of vaccines to millions of people around the world – helping to keep them well and out of hospital.
Together we came through some of the toughest challenges our company has faced in our history. We proved that we could adapt and deliver when our customers and the World needed us most. That really is the hallmark of being a resilient organization.