EGG HARBOR TOWNSHIP — Michael Merlino was making plans in March to retire in June when COVID-19 started devastating the Northeast.
As a logistics supervisor for AtlantiCare, he was responsible for ensuring that the health care system’s hospitals, urgent care facilities, physician’s offices and laboratories received the supplies they needed.
Just as Merlino was preparing to train his apprentice so he could retire, the pandemic struck. The full effects meant shortages of medical supplies as demand increased 18-fold for equipment, especially personal protective equipment — masks, gloves, face shields, etc.
After a conversation with the assistant vice president of procurement services, Merlino decided that March to June would be a less-than-ideal time to train his replacement. His own judgment — and that of his wife, Vicky, who retired from AtlantiCare in August 2019 — told him he should stay.
“There was a lot more product coming in the door and a lot more product going out the door, and just trying to source products from different vendors,” Merlino said regarding how COVID-19 affected his daily job duties. “If our primary vendor wasn’t able to meet our needs, then we just looked for alternate sources. It got a little hairy at times because you’re not sure how much product you’re going to get in. But we work with a good team here.”
AtlantiCare spokeswoman Jennifer Tornetta said Merlino played a key role in making sure the health system could continue to stay open and provide care safely throughout the pandemic.
Tornetta said Merlino’s commitment was viewed by staff as just another example of his work ethic over the past 44 years.
“On most days, Mike was the first one in the warehouse,” Tornetta said.
In addition to an increase in demand for medical supplies during the pandemic, other challenges presented themselves that many believe Merlino was the best man to manage. One such challenge involved technology.
The standard system the supply warehouse uses to automatically reorder products for the team could not handle the influx of orders as a result of COVID-19. Instead of reordering essential supplies as they consistently ran low due to the pandemic, the system would detect the historical usage of products as an error and reject the order. Merlino and his team needed to manually override most of these products to ensure the hospital received what was needed, such as masks, gloves, shoe covers, sanitizing wipes, IV fluids and especially respiratory products.
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“It was just a hodgepodge of trucks coming in. We never knew what product was coming from where and when. The organization went out the window at that point,” Merlino said.
When Merlino started with AtlantiCare, he worked in a small storeroom at the Mainland Campus in Galloway Township. As the health system grew, he accepted more responsibilities and moved to an offsite location. Over the course of his career, he says there have been many successes and few challenges.
Some notably challenging events included overseeing distribution during hurricanes, snowstorms, blackouts and the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
“It was a surreal moment. We were over 100 miles away, and were told to be on standby because we might get patients,” Merlino said of the attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City.
Merlino’s last week was one long farewell, as employees stopped by to thank him and wish him well. President and CEO Lori Herndon made it a point to have one last lunch with the longtime employee. On Thursday, employees threw a party, and, while adhering to social distancing, celebrated one last time.
Then, on Friday it was time to go.
Merlino said he is ready for a new chapter in his life.
“Time to take a little rest and see what comes next. It’s been very rewarding,” he said.
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