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A Baltimore hospital maintenance director is clearing the air to keep his colleagues safe from coronavirus

Richie Stever is director of operations and maintenance at University of Maryland Medical Center.

Talk about pressure.

It’s not really hyperbole to say that the entire state of Maryland has been depending on Richie Stever and his team of maintenance workers to perform their jobs flawlessly.

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Had there been a slight miscalculation in the way Stever’s crew reversed the air flow — creating negative pressure — in 500 hospital rooms for COVID-19 patients throughout the University of Maryland Medical System, a lot of doctors, nurses, aides, paramedics and cafeteria workers would be at risk of becoming ill with the deadly coronavirus.

And if many of the system’s 28,000 employees were to fall ill at the same time, who would treat patients?

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“My biggest fear was and still is that our buildings won’t operate the way they should, and patients will inadvertently transmit COVID-19 to our staff,” Stever said.

Stever, a 47-year-old White Marsh resident, is director of maintenance and operations for the downtown campus at 22 S. Greene St. and the midtown campus at 827 Linden Ave.

When the novel coronavirus invaded Maryland in March, he served as the infrastructure chief for the entire medical system. It was his responsibility to ensure that the system’s 13 sites were places where the staff could treat patients infected with COVID-19 while running as little risk to themselves as possible.

The medical system’s previous experience caring for patients infected with viruses such as tuberculosis and Ebola was useful, though the hospital had never before faced an epidemic this widespread.

“We learned early on that the best way to protect staff, visitors and other patients was to reverse the air flow in patients’ rooms,” Stever said.

“We wanted instead to … essentially replace dirty air with clean air,” Stever said. “We pull clean air from the hallways into the patients’ rooms, filter it, and then [send it through the exhaust system] outdoors.”

Stever and his 80-worker crew had just six weeks to prepare 500 rooms systemwide to accept COVID-19 patients.

In addition to individual rooms, Stever’s crew created segregated areas within the hospitals for treating COVID-19 patients.

“We made entire wards and wings negative pressure,” he said.

Stever’s crew came up with other innovations to keep the staff safe.

For example, the downtown campus is a teaching hospital where physicians and students make daily rounds. Stever obtained five robots outfitted with screens that can be remotely controlled to observe patients.

Alison G. Brown, Interim President of UMMC Downtown Campus and President of UMMC Midtown Campus, described the maintenance crew, and Stever in particular, as “unsung heroes.”

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“Richie has incredible depth of expertise,” she said.

“What his team does is really technical and really sophisticated. What was so impressive was how quickly they mobilized to nearly triple our capacity for treating COVID-19 patients. If we don’t have the rooms, we can’t provide the care.”

The transmission rate at which COVID-19 infections have passed between patients and the medical system’s staff “has been really low, for a variety of reasons,” Brown said, “and that’s something we are really pleased about.”

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