Stempel College grad a leader in both federal and local COVID-19 responses

Bridget Pelaez rushes in where there’s disaster. Last month that meant commanding a federal team of 20 critical care physicians and others as they answered a call for help at a hospital out west that was overwhelmed with coronavirus patients. (She declined to identify the exact location out of privacy concerns.)

The 36-year-old alumna of the Stempel College of Public Health & Social Work and assistant director for FIU’s Division of Operations and Safety has parlayed her compassion and deep training—she holds EMT-paramedic certification, a nursing degree and a master’s in disaster management—into a life of service to others.

That has included deploying to Houston as a member of the National Disaster Medical System to help in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey; directing FIU's volunteer response team that annually collaborates with U.S. agencies on humanitarian missions to Central and South America; and overseeing (for more than nine months now) the operation of a Miami-Dade County COVID-19 testing site adjacent to Modesto A. Maidique Campus and currently seeing more than 2,200 visitors a day.

As the deputy commander for the recent two-week deployment, Pelaez called upon lessons learned to expand and run the hospital’s COVID-19 unit. She also left behind a blueprint for continuing the work once her doctors, nurses and respiratory therapists returned home to their own full-time jobs amid the pandemic.

Despite most hospitals having in place emergency management plans, COVID-19 changed the playbook for many as they have struggled to hire adequate staff—and even provide proper orientation for those who do come on board—to meet the tremendous demand.

For Pelaez, communication was key.

“We’re going in to help, but we’re also strangers,” she says. “I wanted to make sure that the hospital staff knew we were not there to judge them. We were there for a short period of time, but we were there to help them come to solutions today while also thinking ahead for their patients, knowing we wouldn’t be there forever.”

Finding those solutions meant holding meetings with leaders across the board, from the chief medical officer and nursing director on down.

“I quickly had to understand the infrastructure of the hospital, build and create relationships among the different departments of the hospital,” Pelaez recalls, “so that I could understand holistically what the needs were.”

That meant talking with the head of facilities, for example, to ensure that COVID-19 patient rooms were properly monitored for “negative flow” to contain contaminated air; with the IT director to make available enough computers so that nurses could document patients’ progress at bedside; and with the lead pharmacist to find the best way to get vital medications to the unit at a time when staff were exhausted and stretched thin. During an especially busy time, Pelaez grabbed her logistics chief and decided the pair would “run” the pharmaceuticals themselves.

“When things become complex, that’s when you need to get down to the basics,” she says of the quick-and-dirty approach that paid off at the moment, even as the two continued to tackle the larger, underlying problem.

Through it all, Pelaez remained an advocate not only for patients but for her own people. She worked with the local health department and emergency management officials to secure essential PPE and whatever other equipment they might need to “just do what they do best.”

Back on the corner of 107th Ave. and Coral Way, where cars start lining up well before the 8 a.m. opening, Pelaez works long days in weekly rotation with her FIU job. As the staff of nurses this week tested their 160,000th resident—and virus cases continue to rise—she tries to keep spirits up even as fatigue sets in among the public and health care workers alike.

“I always tell my staff that although we’re doing a great job, and believe me, this site is well run,” she says, “I think complacency can be our biggest regret. I have a quote that I hang up inside the command post.

“It says, ‘Just because you are over the pandemic does not mean the pandemic is over.’”