Mary Virgallito’s fingerprints are all over USC Verdugo Hills Hospital.
Her title as infection preventionist means this isn’t a literal statement — she’ll sooner sanitize and wipe down a window than smudge a handprint on it — but rather metaphorical. Whether it’s food prep, janitorial service or surgery, if it happens at USC-VHH, it’s because Virgallito — a La Cañada Flintridge native who went off, became a nurse and returned home — gave it the thumbs-up.
“This involves every single aspect of what we do, even on the finance side,” she explained in a phone interview. “It’s something that I never really expected but you get a flavor for every aspect of how a hospital functions. You have to have a snapshot understanding of all of the disciplines. It’s really comprehensive. Many times people will ask me what I do and it’s hard to answer them in one sentence.”
The state requires that hospitals staff infection preventionists — called “IPs” for short — but Virgallito acknowledged that typically, much of their work is behind the scenes, without, say, a pandemic having effectively shut down most of the planet. She said USC-VHH began positioning itself for COVID-19 in January, as news finally began to trickle out of China about the mysterious respiratory infections linked to a novel coronavirus that reports indicate likely emerged in November.
“The entire leadership team pulled together,” said Virgallito, a 1994 graduate of La Cañada High School. “Every member of the executive and management team took on a piece and a role and started rounding every day, communicating with staff, working on protocols. We have daily meetings and daily communications. It is such a team effort and now that everyone has learned enough to see things through the lenses of IP, that has been very helpful. It’s been so rewarding in looking how this team has come together to face this.”
Part of the game plan, Virgallito added, was transparency on the hospital’s part. USC-VHH made a point, she explained, to send representatives to city council and board meetings for its typical patient area to ensure information on the disease made it to the public. Whenever the hospital admitted its first patient with COVID-19, it revealed so, and a dashboard for the hospital keeps the public updated on patient counts. Virgallito’s work was recently spotlighted on CBS Los Angeles in its weekly “STEAM Series” segment, which, as the acronym suggests, profiles professionals in science, technology, engineering, arts and math fields.
As of Wednesday, USC-VHH was treating 11 patients with the disease, had successfully treated and sent home 73 and had transferred 35.
“Not every hospital does that, but we were committed to our plan,” she said. “Unlike many other places, we took time to get out to the community and go to the board meetings and the local meetings and actually get information out there.”
Other parts of that prep work address the fact that USC-VHH hasn’t morphed into a COVID-19 clinic. Plenty of other typical hospital functions are ongoing, albeit with appropriate coronavirus modifications.
“So much of the need hasn’t changed,” Virgallito explained. “People are still having strokes, heart attacks, babies. How can we do that, and do that in the COVID age and you’re not sure who might potentially be infected? The turnaround time for tests right now can be 48 hours or longer, so how can you deliver care without knowing? That’s where the IP side has to be an overlay for everything that we do.
“It’s changed the whole approach for health care,” she added. “You can’t deliver health care the way you did before December. It’s created a whole new paradigm. The initial work in January, February and March was preparing for the surge of patients, but now that they’re here, it’s the additional factor of preparing for what life will be like for the next several years of the COVID era.
“We want to be able to treat you if you have an emergency or are sick,” Virgallito said, “and trust that we can do that safely. A huge part of my job is ensuring the safety of patients and staff here, so we really want the community to know that they can bring their family here and be safe here.”
Virgallito said she suspected changes forced by the pandemic might actually improve the delivery of health care and would actually become standard practice after things return to relatively normal. Telehealth appointments, in particular, have surged as doctors ask that patients phone or video chat in for standard appointments or post-procedure follow-ups in an effort to prevent opportunities for the virus to spread.
“There will always be visits that cannot be done remotely, but it takes the burden and the stress off a system if we can perform the care in a different way, and it also keeps people safer,” she said. “If there’s a bright side of this, it has pushed us to adopt some practices that we realize are going to make health care more efficient and safer.”
After graduating from La Cañada High School, Virgallito studied nursing at Mount Saint Mary’s College, where she graduated summa cum laude in 1998. She immediately joined Children’s Hospital Los Angeles through 2003 and returned in 2008 after working at a private practice. In that era, she earned her master’s degree in nursing from UCLA in 2002.
Virgallito worked her way from nurse to infection control roles at Children’s Hospital — ultimately becoming director of infection prevention and control there — before joining USC-VHH four years ago this month. Her formal title is director of patient safety and infection control.
“That was a huge factor in taking this position here, wanting to work in my community and take care of my family and friends here,” she said. “Being able to take my skillset and bring it here was really important to me.”
The move was a natural one for Virgallito and her family because they’d been living in nearby La Crescenta and her daughter now attends LCHS.
“It is really cool to look out the window and think, ‘This is where I live and where I grew up,’” she said. “From the top two floors, I can see the neighborhood where I live. From my back yard, I can see the hospital.
“It’s the shortest commute around,” she added, “and I love it.”
USC-VHH CEO Keith Hobbs lauded his star IP for how much she has enhanced the facility, not just during the ongoing pandemic, but well before it began as well.
“Mary Virgallito’s leadership and expertise has been invaluable to USC Verdugo Hills Hospital, not only throughout all stages of this pandemic, but also in her years committed to upholding the highest standards of safety and quality care,” Hobbs said in a prepared statement. “I am privileged to work alongside someone so committed to her patients, colleagues and community.”
For those considering nursing for a career, Virgallito said being an IP isn’t easy, but is a good specialty if you enjoy a challenge and don’t ever want to be bored. With such a widespread awareness of infectious diseases now, she said she thinks her job will become more prominent in the years ahead.
“I think H1N1 and Ebola was the first time people really paid attention to what an IP is, but I think moving forward, it’s always going to be kind of in the forefront. We’re no longer going to be behind the scenes. I think each one of those health emergencies highlighted the need more and more,” she said. “It’s a running joke among IPs that we see the world differently. When you look at things through our eyes, there’s always risk. Now, the whole community — people who didn’t think about these things — everyone is waking up to the reality that we’ve lived in for a long time. People used to call us germaphobes. I think it’s changing the way we function and the way we look at the risk of disease.
“It’s going to alter us as a culture,” Virgallito said, before correcting herself. “It already has.”
Mary Virgallito’s fingerprints are all over USC Verdugo Hills Hospital.