Ensuring a Safe Environment of Care at Dana‑Farber

Responding to a Global Pandemic in Real-Time

March 12, 2021

By Austin Fontanella

Cancer can leave patients vulnerable. Whether it's from the disease itself, or a result of the powerful drugs used to treat it, many people are left immunocompromised — at a greater risk for developing infections, even after their treatments are complete.

When the COVID-19 pandemic changed the way businesses operate, Dana-Farber found itself uniquely positioned to address emerging safety concerns. Having long cared for vulnerable patient populations, the Institute was able to build on existing policies, while also implementing new ones, to increase protection for our patients, their loved ones, and the staff who care for them and keep them safe.

At the onset of the pandemic, it was all-hands-on-deck," says Wendy Gettleman, vice president, Facilities Management and Real Estate at Dana-Farber. "Everyone stepped up, and I cannot thank our team enough. Because of them, we didn't miss a beat.
Wendy Gettleman

Modifications to Prevent COVID-19 Spread

One of the first things Dana-Farber did was modify its buildings to handle the "new normal." Seemingly overnight, the Institute was outfitted with plexiglass checkpoints to better screen all incoming individuals for COVID-19 symptoms. Hand sanitizing stations graced every hallway, and patients needed only walk a few feet to see one of thousands of signs promoting physical distancing, mask usage, and proper patient flow.


Additional alterations, such as blocked off chairs and workstations, also caught the eyes of passersby. However, what was likely missed was the work going on behind the scenes. In-house architects reviewed floorplans then meticulously went floor by floor to determine safe, COVID-friendly building-occupancy limits; from research labs, to patient waiting rooms, to clinic spaces. Teams also carefully examined air flow and filtration protocols to ensure they were optimized to provide a safe environment for all.

Signage was critical," explains Sherri Rullen, senior director of Planning, Design, and Construction at Dana-Farber. "It helped us reinforce the right messaging about physical distancing and infection control for our patients and staff.
Sherri Rullen

New Equipment and Training to Optimize Safety

As one group worked to update buildings, another was helping outfit patients and staff with adequate personal protective equipment (PPE) — everything from N95 respirators, surgical face masks, and face shields, to gloves and aprons. Operations teams ensured everyone had access to appropriate PPE and was properly protected.

Early on, led by a collaborative team of research and safety personnel, in the midst of a global PPE shortage, Dana-Farber devised its own in-house system to decontaminate hundreds of masks and face shields and help conserve its valuable supply.


PPE distribution was set up in tandem with new safety protocols. Restrictions limited overall foot traffic, while new cleaning policies ensured that every "point-of-touch" area would be disinfected multiple times a day — not just exam rooms, but countless smaller surfaces, such as elevator buttons, door handles, and handrails. Additional cleaning crews were brought in to handle the workload. Before COVID, cleaning was only done at night, but now crews were now working around the clock to provide a visible presence and safe environment.

Staff were also trained on everything from new, enhanced hygiene protocols to how to properly treat a patient suspected to have COVID-19. Some onsite staff were asked to take on new roles to help meet more stringent safety standards. When limits on patient companions became necessary, valet parking staff, for example, were trained, almost overnight, to become patient transporters — helping patients with limited mobility get safely to their appointments.

"It's another example of a group going out of their way to ensure Dana-Farber remains a place that's patient-centric, while still making safety a top priority," explains Gettleman.

Supporting On-Site Employees

As frontline workers and support staff worked to care for and protect patients, Dana-Farber leaders jumped into action to do the same for them. Making safe and reliable commuting options a top priority, Dana-Farber implemented plans for contracted transportation companies to limit passenger capacities on staff shuttles, install plexiglass barriers above each seat, and boost cleanings.


"Staff shouldn't have to worry if they have a safe way to get to work," notes Olivia Mullen, manager, General Services. "It's about finding everyone a commute that's both safe and cost-effective."

Another initiative centered around access to healthy meals. For that, the Institute implemented an online ordering system for its Lavine Family Dining Pavilion, which in non-pandemic times serves as a central gathering area for both patients and staff. Giving staff the ability to order online meant they could now order meals in advance and pick up from a designated area. The move offered employees meal flexibility and reduced foot traffic in a high-volume area.

Moving Forward: Vaccines for All

As the pandemic continues to change, Dana-Farber's efforts are evolving to meet new obstacles. When the first COVID-19 vaccines gained U.S. emergency authorization in December, the Institute began an extensive vaccination initiative. In compliance with Massachusetts guidelines, Dana-Farber worked first to vaccinate staff and now patients.

This vaccination push, while limited at times by supply, includes making a special effort to reach out to the Institute's most vulnerable patients and those in underserved and hard-hit communities. Dana-Farber's Interpreter Services team is working to ensure that language is not a barrier to vaccination, and the Institute is helping those who need it get transportation to their vaccine appointments.

From the initial protocols to the latest vaccine push, all of this has been done to not only improve safety but also offer staff and patients alike a sense of security during a tumultuous and uncertain time.