As the Martha’s Vineyard Hospital prepares for a potential influx of coronavirus cases, hospital staff have been training tirelessly over the past week with infectious disease expert Dr. Gavin Macgregor-Skinner to ready themselves — in both body and mind — for the pandemic to come.

Dr. Skinner teaches disaster medicine at Harvard and Penn State universities, and has spent the past 20 years responding to and preparing for earthquakes, hurricanes, tornadoes, disease outbreaks, epidemics and, of course, pandemics throughout the globe. He has been on the front lines for the avian flu and SARS outbreaks, and took three trips to West Africa to help set up and manage hospitals during the Ebola crisis in 2014.

But the coronavirus, and the threat it poses, is new — even to one of the world’s foremost infectious disease experts.

Most recently, Dr. Skinner spent 18 days in Hong Kong this February, working with hospitals to prepare for the pandemic’s unknowns. While cases spread through mainland China, Hong Kong was able to limit the number of cases through strict hospital preparedness and aggressive contact tracing. He said there were lessons to be learned from his time in Asia — lessons that he hoped to bring back to the Vineyard.

“Because this is a new, novel, coronavirus disease, I’d never seen a coronavirus patient before,” Dr. Skinner said in a phone interview with the Gazette. “In Hong Kong I was seeing patients and seeing what their symptoms were like, seeing how they changed over periods of time . . .a lot of lessons and experience that I’d received in Hong Kong I’ve been able to apply and train in hospitals here in the U.S.”

The training Dr. Skinner has been doing at Martha’s Vineyard Hospital involves preparing all front-line staff to work safely with a pathogen about which even experts know little. That means providing emotional and physical support for patients, buffering the hospital’s wellness program and performing constant training so that hospital employees know how to properly wear, and work with, personal protective equipment, like gowns, masks and gloves.

“The hospital here was doing a lot before I arrived. What I have tried to do with my visit is accelerate some of the things that they were already doing,” Dr. Skinner said. “They are working in a very hostile, unknown environment with a highly infectious, viral disease like coronavirus, so we want to ensure that our front-line workers are safe at all times. That’s the training that I provide.”

While some hospital staff were familiar with personal protective equipment before Dr. Skinner came to the Island, many were not at all, maybe only wearing PPE once or twice in their lives. Dr. Skinner is helping them maintain comfort and dexterity while wearing gear that can often be cumbersome. He is also preparing them mentally by instituting a three-person buddy system for hospital staff to check in with every day to share their thoughts, feelings and concerns during the crisis.

In order to stay safe, staff have to undergo twice-daily temperature checks, use separate entrances to the hospital, and visit special areas to disinfect before leaving for home. The hospital currently has one patient hospitalized with the virus, but they expect, and are preparing, for more.

“It has been amazing to have Dr. Skinner,” said Dr. Karen Caspar, who specializes in emergency medicine. “Just being able to ask a question, and know everybody is looking out for everybody else. It has gotten us to a new level of being present, and really having great gratitude for the people we are working with.”

She added: “We’re getting the opportunity to become more comfortable with the change in the flow of how we are doing things, and that preparedness is going to keep our staff here, on the front lines, and able to help our community,” she said.

One of the lessons Dr. Skinner learned overseas was the simple importance of protecting his nose, eyes and mouth. While the virus can rest on the skin, it is only contracted through those orifices on the face — something he even emphasizes to physicians, and wanted to emphasize for Islanders.

In recent days, Dr. Skinner’s training and work on the Vineyard has also focused on drawing up preparedness plans for the hospital and community in the coming weeks and months. He noted that one particular strength he saw on the Island was the quality of communication between the hospital, first responders, public health officials and even businesspeople, and the dedication of those personnel.

“What I’ve seen in the two days here, is that the communication from people who work in the hospital with other first responders, but also within the community, is excellent,” Dr. Skinner said. “We want to stop transmission of the infection, and we believe that we can do that throughout the Island, and protect everyone in the Island, so that we don’t see the great disruptions that we see in other locations.”

He said the impact of working on the front lines of a pandemic can take its toll, both physically and emotionally, causing stress and anxiety for those who don’t have the option to take a day off of work. But it’s that small sense of fear, he said, that keeps him, and other first responders, laser-focused in a crisis. That’s part of the mentality he wants to pass on to the Island — an Island, he said, he hopes to return to when the crisis is over.

“If I am working with any infectious disease, that has no vaccine, and no medication to cure that disease — like ebola, like coronavirus — then to be really honest, I feel anxious. I feel worried. I might even feel a little scared sometimes,” Dr. Skinner said. “Because that’s what keeps me on my toes. That keeps me focused on the task at hand . . . and it’s what keeps us razor sharp in patient care.”