CEDAR RAPIDS — Early on, before Iowa’s first COVID-19 case March 8, Dr. Dustin Arnold and the medical staff at UnityPoint Health-St. Luke’s Hospital had a discussion about what their approach would look like.
They set guiding principles: protect patients, hospital associates and fellow physicians; minimize transmission of the disease; limit morbidity-mortality; and preserve a functioning health care system, the St. Luke’s chief medical officer said.
“We’ve tried to make every decision since that time with those guiding principles,” said Arnold, who’s been with St. Luke’s since 2005. “You put that out there, and then your team can use those guiding principles to have more autonomy to solve the problem right in front of them.”
Arnold, 50, has emerged as one of the trusted local medical voices, providing clarity and direction during an uncertain time as a regular face at twice-weekly news briefings where local information is disseminated and key questions are answered.
Arnold is a Cedar Rapids native who attended Kennedy High School and played on the offensive line on the Coe College football team. He was born in the same hallway he’d later work.
He attended medical school at Des Moines University, practiced in Grinnell and returned to Cedar Rapids in 2005, where he’d find support while raising children.
He knew at an early age he wanted to be a doctor. His parents were chronically ill, and he spent a lot of time at medical offices. They died at an early age.
“I thought I could make things better for people,” he said.
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Experiences responding during the historic 2008 flood and Ebola epidemic helped prepare him for the challenges he faces now.
“I have anxiety, fears, just like anyone else, but I know in these times, we have to be calm and competent,” Arnold said. “No matter how much fear and anxiety you have, it is not going to affect the way the events unfold, so put your energies in a positive direction. ... I want people to take this particular event seriously, but also with, as I like to say, clear minds and quick hands and we’ll get through this.”
His role in the COVID-19 response wasn’t planned, but as chief medical officer who is a liaison between doctors and administrators, stepping up made sense.
While he is confident in the staff, the matter keeping him up at night and requiring constant attention during the day is ensuring adequate medical supplies. Running low on personal protective equipment, ventilators and medicine is a new challenge and has required working with new suppliers and stressful moments.
He has tried to stay abreast of what is happening through reading and research from medical societies and health organizations.
“There’s such volume right now, and a lot of it can be noise,” he said, “because we are building an airplane as we are flying it. This is all novel and there is no source of truth. You have a lot of noise to wade through. But on the same token, you want to dig the well before you are thirsty, and you want to do the research and want to know what you are up against so you can maintain that degree of flexibility and maintain the momentum of your team to accomplish the initiatives you set out.”
Michelle Niermann, president and chief executive of UnityPoint Health in Cedar Rapids, described Arnold as “extraordinarily committed and highly responsive in ordinary times.”
“That he would rise even further to the occasion in this crisis is of no surprise to us,” she said. “Dr. Arnold has fostered the respect of the medical community. Physicians and our team members alike know how much he cares about them, our patients and our organization. We are thankful for his leadership as we continue to work to meet the needs of our community during the COVID-19 pandemic.”
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