Boundless Energy Is a Winning Strategy for Virtua Health Security Executive

Setting up a COVID mass vaccination site, standardizing policies and procedures, as well as upgrading a wide range of technologies are just some of Paul Sarnese’s achievements that led to him being named Campus Safety 2022 Healthcare Director of the Year.
Published: December 9, 2022

No industry has struggled more during the pandemic than hospitals. That’s why this year’s healthcare Director of the Year winner Paul Sarnese’s accomplishments at Virtua Health in Marlton, New Jersey, are so impressive.

As his organization’s vice president of safety, security, and emergency preparedness, Sarnese’s COVID-19 responsibilities were key to Virtua’s response to the virus. If that weren’t enough, at the same time he also standardized a wide variety of security, safety, and emergency management policies, procedures, systems, and other equipment across his employer’s five hospitals, seven emergency departments, eight urgent cares, two long-term care facilities, and the company’s multitude of other locations.

To top it all off, Sarnese coordinated Virtua’s response and support of Operation Allies Welcome, which helped more than 1,000 refugees from Afghanistan settle in the U.S. (To learn more about Sarnese’s experience managing this massive effort, click here.)

Needless to say, the guy has a ton of energy, which has made him an invaluable asset to Virtua, says Virtua Health Director of Communication and Engagement Daniel Moise.

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“Paul is without question among the most essential of the 14,000 ‘essential workers’ on our staff,” Moise says. “From natural disasters to acts of violence to societal unrest, Paul responds to anything required with poise, assuredness, a questioning attitude, and a visible desire to be of service. When others start to panic, Paul leans into his training, experience, and natural instincts to find solutions and [be] a source for good.”

These accomplishments and many more are why Sarnese was named the 2022 Campus Safety Healthcare Director of the Year.

Sarnese and His Team Scale Up Virtua’s COVID Operations

Over the past three years, practically all hospital security, safety, and emergency management departments have taken on new roles and responsibilities due to the unprecedented circumstances posed by the pandemic. Virtua Health was no exception to this unfortunate reality, but Sarnese and his team met the challenge head on.

At the start of the pandemic, Sarnese supervised the set-up of Virtua’s COVID testing centers, emergency room triage tents, adaptable ICU space, and more. Additionally, his teams adopted new protocols and policies to restrict the flow of people, helping to slow the spread of the virus.

Sarnese did such a good job of scaling up Virtua’s COVID operations that he was designated spokesperson for the organization. In this capacity, he shared public health and safety messages in a way that built trust and quelled anxieties.

When the COVID vaccines became available in December 2020, Sarnese was the incident commander, leading a diverse team from Virtua, including colleagues from operations, supply chain, pharmacy and many more departments. These efforts enabled Virtua to start vaccinating front-line workers.

When the vaccines became available to the general public early in 2021, Virtua was asked by the State of New Jersey to serve as healthcare partner for one of six mega vaccination sites in the state.

“Paul saw to it that a run-down, dingy former department store was converted into a welcoming and accessible vaccine distribution center, all in a matter of weeks,” says Moise. “I will openly admit that I did not think it was possible; Paul proved me wrong.”

According to Moise, Virtua’s mega-site ran like clockwork. For several months, as many as 6,000 people per day were vaccinated at the facility.

In setting up the mega-site, Sarnese worked with the New Jersey State Police, New Jersey Department of Health, National Guard, FEMA, and the Burlington county Department of Health. He also worked with the local police department and County Sheriff’s Department to develop post orders and emergency response procedures for the site.

On top of all that, Sarnese organized community vaccination clinics, working in conjunction with Virtua leadership, public resources, community partners, and local clergy. The clinics targeted at-risk populations and vaccinated thousands of community members.

Policies, Procedures, Security Systems Needed to Be Standardized

Although Sarnese’s handling of his additional COVID duties was impressive on its own, it’s also important to note the many other improvements he made at the same time he was dealing with the pandemic.

He standardized many policies and procedures across Virtua Health, including:

  • The security operations manual
  • Security officer and supervisor uniforms
  • Security job titles and descriptions
  • Recruiting, hiring, onboarding, and on-the-job training processes
  • Post orders
  • Environment of care policies and procedures
  • Emergency operations plan
  • Plain language for emergency communications

Sarnese also updated and/or standardized much of the equipment and security technology his department uses. His department installed a portable radio infrastructure that allows for local and system-wide security communications among all sites.

Virtua’s access control system was standardized across all of its campuses, and all card readers were replaced at two campuses. Additionally, video surveillance was standardized among all of the campuses, and all of the cameras, NVRs and infrastructure at two locations were replaced.

Virtua’s mass notification system also received quite a bit of attention. All of the campuses are now using the same system, and Sarnese deployed an app to provide emergency notification on all mobile devices.

Not all of the advances were technical, however. Sarnese had amnesty boxes installed at all campuses for the self-surrendering of weapons and other dangerous items.

He also made other adjustments that enabled more officers to be deployed or hired. For example, by restructuring the staffing plans and sharing resources among campuses, his department was able to add an additional security officer to the emergency department 24/7. Sarnese also restructured the security system budgets and rosters to create a full-time, dedicated chief of security position at one location.

Click here for complete 2022 Director of the Year coverage.

Additionally, Sarnese increased the salaries of 87% of his officers by working with HR to conduct a market analysis of security officer hourly rates in New Jersey. The increase in pay has helped with staff recruitment, retention, and morale.

He’s Not Slowing Down

One might think that after achieving so much, Sarnese would take a breather. But no. Just last month he represented the International Association for Healthcare Security and Safety in Dubai at the IHF Secretariat World Health Congress.

“If I were in his shoes, I would consider myself worthy of a way-early retirement,” says Moise. “But that’s not Paul. He is tireless and passionate and a role model to many.”

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