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Delaware hospital leader’s quick coronavirus learning curve

Dr. David Tam, president and CEO of Beebe Healthcare in Delaware

Dr. David Tam started work as president and CEO of Beebe Healthcare in southern Delaware just as the coronavirus pandemic started spreading in the state. (Courtesy of Beebe Healthcare)

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When starting a new job, it’s nice to be able to ease into your surroundings and take time to get to know the people and work culture. But that didn’t happen for Dr. David Tam.

He was originally slated to take the top job at Delaware’s Beebe Healthcare in April after working as COO at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, California. Instead, as the coronavirus outbreak started spreading in the First State, Tam began his new role as president and CEO on March 16 — just a few days after Gov. John Carney announced a state of emergency and issued a stay-at-home order for non-essential workers.

After four days on the job, Tam got a call from Carney’s office, asking if he would appear with the governor at a press conference at nearby Cape Henlopen State Park.

“My first question was ‘where is Cape Henlopen State Park?’”

It’s that sort of wayfinding that’s been the biggest adjustment, Tam said. “It’s just been a personal challenge for me to know where our clinics are and everything, because I’ve only been here for 30-some days.”

Tam spent 24 years in the Navy, in part working as the chief operating officer for the western region of Tricare, the military’s health insurance program. He says that military background helped prepare him for the unknowns that would come with the COVID-19 pandemic.

When asked if Beebe had enough protective equipment and other supplies for health care workers on the frontlines, Tam said yes — for now.

“I was in the military for a long time, and asking somebody if you have the equipment you need, the answer is, well, it depends on what the enemy will do and what the battle will look like,” he said.

Taking over in a time of crisis has helped him connect more quickly to others in the community and local elected officials than he might have during more normal times. He recalled getting a phone call from U.S. Sen. Chris Coons of Delaware, asking what equipment or other help Beebe needed.

“At the end of it, he asked me, ‘So why’d you move from Santa Monica California to Lewes, Delaware?’ And my answer was, ‘Sen. Coons, because I would never, ever imagine I would have this kind of conversation with a U.S. senator asking about what we need.”

While Delaware’s COVID-19 outbreak started in New Castle County, southern Sussex County where Beebe has seen the state’s fastest growth in cases over the past few weeks.

As of Tuesday afternoon, the state Division of Public Health said there were 1,139 cases of the coronavirus in Sussex County. The statewide case total is just shy of 3,000.

Tam praised the staff at Beebe for managing the crisis well.

“The organization here had already a great leadership team and the people have been incredible, so it has not been anything to fix, but what to add on to.”

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