2020 PERSON OF THE YEAR

Esther Muña

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Esther Muña

When the CNMI reopened its borders in May to let in returning residents who had been stranded in Guam due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Commonwealth Healthcare Corp. chief executive officer Esther Muña was always at the airport, together with other health care team members, to monitor the arrival of passengers and their transport to the quarantine facility.

More than just mere monitoring, it was also a tangible show of leadership, making sure that if any questions or issues arose, the people who have the authority were there to immediately respond and make the decision, Muña said. “In the beginning, one of the reasons why we were there is you have to put some leadership there. …We want to make sure that when they make a decision, that their decision is the right decision,” she said.

Also, she wanted to be there as a support system for CHCC personnel and first responders who were also present at the airport.

That hands-on approach and the leadership that Muña has shown in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as the CNMI leadership’s quick action to put in place a system to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in the CNMI, is one of the reasons why the CNMI is now on its fourth month without an instance of community transmission, which is why Saipan Tribune has chosen Muña as its Person of the Year.

The CNMI’s success in keeping its numbers down is underscored by the fact that, had the CNMI not done anything to combat the spread of COVID-19, the Federal Emergency Management Agency had predicted that there would be 6,000 to 8,000 COVID-19 cases in the CNMI by June this year. That has not happened. In fact, the number of COVID-19 cases in the CNMI—at 122—is only one higher than the 121 COVID-19 deaths in the neighboring island of Guam.

Of course, that the CNMI has managed to avert a pandemic disaster cannot be attributed to just one person. That feat is because of a potent mix of health care protocols created by CHCC and the COVID-19 Task Force, the quick action of Gov. Ralph DLG Torres and his administration in making key decisions and securing needed equipment, the cooperation of the larger CNMI community, and securing the assistance of the CNMI’s business community and its expertise in logistics and getting things done fast. But, much like Dr. Anthony Fauci, who has become the face of the United States’ response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Muña has also become the CNMI’s de facto face of its COVID-19 response, providing a calming influence on an anxious community that relies on its health care professionals to provide clear answers to questions about the virus.

That’s not to say that Muña herself was never anxious. One of the struggles she faced in dealing with COVID-19 is the fear that she could bring the virus back home to her family. “I have someone in my family that I have to protect. It’s a lot more stress than usual, I tell you,” she said. Muña said those overwhelming emotions also affected her team. “There’s been a lot of emotions that come up within not only myself but also within our team. One of the things that come to mind when overcoming it is that we’re not doing this for ourselves, we’re all doing this for the community. And one thing about public health is it’s about protecting the community,” said Muña.

At the end of the day, she said, her main focus is to do the right thing not only for her staff but for the community as well.

Another one of her struggles as CEO is knowing that she is putting her staff at risk amidst the COVID-19 outbreak. “We’re talking about putting our staff at risk. For example, if you’re working in the hospital, that’s a risk that they [the staff] are aware of, but when you’re putting them basically outside the hospital that’s not an operation of CHCC; it’s not a normal operation that we do,” said Muña.

And, of course, it wasn’t just all COVID-19. She still has a hospital to run, patients to take care of. Muña said that, with more people on her team, she was able to make sure that both were running smoothly. “Working with the governor, [and] the [COVID-19] task force was key and…that’s why I’m grateful because even at three o’clock in the morning, we’re talking to each other, [saying] we got to get things going. We get on calls with Washington D.C., [and] that it’s just a lot of things that we have to do. In some cases, the last thing on our mind is ourselves,” she said.

Even at the start, Muña said she wanted to make sure that her staff had all the proper personal protective equipment to protect themselves, not only in the hospital but when they started the community-based testing at the Francisco c. Ada/Saipan International Airport.

It’s not all been lovey-dovey for Muña. There may have been disagreements among the people that she’s been working with but she said that nothing is ever personal. “One of the things that I love about the CNMI is that people may get upset with each other, but they don’t take it personally in the end. That’s what I saw throughout this process is that you get upset, but then the next day, you’re facing this person, and you’re saying, ‘Hey, let’s just get it done, let’s recharge, and let’s try to do it again,’” said Muña.

She also cited the community’s cooperation with every COVID-19 protocol that were put in place. No matter how much someone didn’t agree with it, they still followed every protocol, which is why the CNMI hasn’t had a community outbreak for over 130 days, Muña said.

Justine Nauta
Justine Nauta is Saipan Tribune's community and health reporter and has covered a wide range of news beats, including the Northern Marianas College and Commonwealth Health Care Corp. She's currently pursuing a bachelor’s degree in Rehabilitation and Human Services at NMC.

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