Cone Health CEO addresses current state of COVID-19 pandemic

Newsmakers

I wish I could get to know Terry Akin under better circumstances.

He’s the CEO of Cone Health — an organization that employs more than 13,000 people in multiple hospitals, med centers, clinics and offices in Guilford, Alamance and four other surrounding counties.

He and I have had three extended conversations over Zoom during the last 10 months.

He seems like a great guy. I’m pretty sure he and I are about the same age. I’m sure we know a lot of the same people.

I’m sure the two of us would enjoy grabbing a quick lunch or a beverage one day to share stories about our professions and life in Greensboro and the Piedmont Triad.

Unfortunately due to COVID, that’s not happening anytime soon.

The conversations we’ve had have been about some pretty unpleasant topics — including people getting sick and people dying.

And our most recent conversation within the last few days was the most unpleasant. As you’re about to read, he uses some pretty candid language to describe this area’s rapidly worsening COVID numbers — numbers that will only get worse if more people don’t change their behaviors.

Here’s the text of our conversation:

Neill
“How much louder is the alarm bell today than it was back in March?”
Terry Akin/CEO Cone Health
“We have a much clearer sense today about what works in terms of preventing the spread of this illness than we did. Now we’ve got a situation where we know what needs to happen. We’re very clear about how we can control and contain and ultimately defeat this disease and we’re dependent upon behavior by the public. I want people to really truly understand it’s getting dire and it’s getting really challenging.”

Neill
“You mentioned the lack of people doing the mitigation. How frustrating is it to you as a health care executive that people are not listening to the advice?”
Terry Akin
“Neill I can’t express how frustrated I am. I was actually talking with one of my good physician friends and colleagues yesterday who was in tears about this. This is somebody who sees what’s coming in our door, so to speak. And this individual, you know, made the comment to me, ‘This, this doesn’t have to happen this way.’ You know somehow — and I will never understand this — somehow this has taken on certain political tones and tenors and this is not a political issue. This is purely a public health issue.”

Neill
“Do you foresee us reaching a point if these numbers continue to go up, that you go to the state or maybe the mayor of Greensboro, the chairman of the Guilford County Commissioners and say, ‘Hey we need some help here! We need to start closing things down’ or maybe ordering people to stay home. Is that a possibility?”
Terry Akin
“That’s absolutely a possibility. Certainly, none of us hope that it gets to that point. I feel very confident in the interim saying that we we don’t act soon, if we don’t act differently soon, we may have no other choice.”

Neill
“I’m interested in what you as administrators are telling your team members there at Cone regarding their own personal Thanksgiving and Christmas celebrations. What are you recommending?”
Terry Akin
“You know, just this idea of limiting risk at a time when it’s spreading like wildfire by not gathering in large groups, by not having your usual large family gathering for Thanksgiving. That’s what we’re telling people. What we’re telling them is to reconsider their holiday plans.”

Neill
“To those who still think COVID-19 is a hoax and they’re not wearing masks. They’re not social distancing. They’re not following the guidelines. What is your message to them?”
Terry Akin
“You know. I don’t even know what to say to those people who are of that mindset. I wish that I could tour them through our Green Valley Campus so they can actually see people with this really awful virus and disease raging. There’s no reality that anyone who is knowledgeable can live in — that would pronounce this a hoax or not real. I mean, we are facing really dire circumstances with people who are severely sick and dying and we’re facing the prospects again of overwhelming our hospitals and health care providers because of that.”

Terry Akin
“It’s so basic what we need. We need people being disciplined and compulsive. Wear your mask. Wash your hands. Stay six feet apart. Avoid large gatherings. Stay home when you can and be smart. Be smart. It’s not even that complicated.”

For the latest Cone Health Coronavirus information, click here.

For North Carolina’s COVID-19 Dashboard, click here.

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