2022 Executive of the Year: To your health — Vaccine champion Mohammad ‘Mo’ Kharbat

Feature Eoy Mo Kharbat Panel
Photo by Shawn Harper

Register to attend the Executive of the Year awards and reception on Tuesday, Jan. 18.

When COVID-19 vaccines became available, Mohammad “Mo” Kharbat, regional vice president of pharmacy services for SSM Health of Wisconsin, was instrumental in deciding that the vaccines distributed to the organization should be for the entire community.

This direction, which contributed to a high vaccination rate in Dane County, earned Kharbat a 2022 Executive of the Year Award in the Large Company category. He is one of six people selected for this honor by a judging panel of previous EOY winners.

Share the care
Early on, when vaccines were available only to health care workers, SSM Health of Wisconsin did not vaccinate only SSM Health workers. When they became available to various segments of the public, SSM did not limit the vaccinates to its own hospital patients or those who received preventive care at SSM clinics.

Eventually, the open-door policy would be expanded to community events, so vaccines were taken to churches, parks, schools, and even a downtown restaurant. The vaccine events continued after children ages 5–11 had been cleared to receive pediatric COVID vaccines, as SSM Health had multiple after-school vaccination programs planned during the period leading up to the holidays. “We were told early on that there are people who are uncomfortable going to a clinic,” Kharbat notes. “Can you bring the vaccine to us?”

The answer was an emphatic yes, and Kharbat’s championing of the widest possible vaccine distribution, especially to traditionally underserved populations, is what most impressed our Executive of the Year judges. Vaccine outreach is one of the reasons that Dane County, as of Dec. 24, had the highest percentage of adults (75.7%) who have completed the COVID vaccine series, according to the Wisconsin Department of Health Services.

At one point, SSM shared 100 COVID vaccines with Stoughton Hospital, which did not have enough vaccines early on. In Kharbat’s view, the vaccines belong to society, not any one hospital or health system. “It’s made available to us free of charge, so we can’t really think of it as SSM property,” he states. “It belongs to the community, and we should make it available in the safest possible manner.”

While the health care industry’s response to the pandemic has received high marks, Kharbat acknowledges the early days were terrifying. The virus was new and not yet fully understood. Medical professionals did not know what to expect, they did not initially know how to treat patients, and the long-term effects of COVID were unknown.

“The early feeling was terrifying, but then after the first two or three months, we began to understand the infection a little more,” he states. “We began to understand how it works. We began to know how we should take care of patients who are infected, and society at large implemented measures that helped in limiting the rate of spread by social distancing, by masking, by other measures that were put in place.”

If that wasn’t enough, when health care providers started procuring supplies and medications, everything was in short supply. “There was such a panic that it was a struggle for us to take care of patients and take care of our employees who were on the front lines,” Kharbat states. “It was a struggle to get them gloves and masks and hand sanitizer and tools to protect themselves and tools to take care of their patients.”

“The solution is to induce an immune response before we get exposed to the virus itself, so that if we do get exposed, our immune system is really on alert. To do that, you must get the vaccine.” — Mohammad “Mo” Kharbat, SSM Health of Wisconsin

Executive of the Year judges praised Kharbat’s management performance during the pandemic, with one saying it was nothing shy of miraculous. “Mo could not have been in a more challenging role over the past 18 months,” notes one judge. “The challenges of leading a large pharmacy operation are significant, but COVID introduced a whole new host of difficulties. Mo was a champion for making vaccines widely available and worked tirelessly to make sure the health system in Wisconsin had needed vaccine supplies.”

He who hesitates
Given what a lifesaver the COVID vaccines have been, many are mystified by the level of vaccine reluctance. Kharbat explains there are people who don’t believe in vaccines in general, not just the COVID vaccines. “There are, in some cases, religious beliefs and in some cases, it’s more of a personal belief that I don’t want to induce myself to build immunity against a certain illness, that I want to have my immunity defend me on its own,” he notes. “It’s a dangerous thought because in some cases when we get infected with an illness, with the virus itself in this case, the course of the disease can be severe enough that it can overwhelm the immune system.

“The solution is to induce an immune response before we get exposed to the virus itself,” he adds, “so that if we do get exposed, our immune system is really on alert. To do that, you must get the vaccine.”

COVID vaccination distribution is a global imperative as well, and various regions of the world still have a long way to go. Based on what he knows about global distribution efforts, Kharbat believes we have a chance to make some headway. Due to the omnipresence of COVID-19, the degree of success with global vaccine distribution is considered one key to rebuilding the global supply chain, not just subduing the virus. “There are so many vaccines out there that have been approved by health authorities across the world,” he notes. “In America, we have only three of these vaccines. Other vaccine products are available in the global markets and for other geographies and regions, and it’s my understanding that here in the U.S., when we reach the point where most people who wanted the vaccine got the vaccine, and before boosters were approved, there was a time where we had a vaccine surplus.

“And it’s my understanding that at that time, the U.S. [Biden] administration donated many doses — don’t quote me on the number — but millions of doses for distribution to the World Health Organization and other groups to distribute elsewhere,” he adds. “So, certainly, we have a role to play on the global stage, and there are some regions in the world that don’t have enough of the vaccine or don’t have it at all. That’s a problem because for us to end the pandemic, we must do so as a global community and not as a country.

“The pandemic itself taught us that it knows no boundaries and it knows no borders and that it will spread. We want the pandemic to end everywhere at the same time.”

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