A Scientist’s Take on COVID-19

Questions provided by Fulbright Australia communications; Photo from Google

How has COVID-19 affected your Fulbright Program? How has it affected life back in the U.S?

The COVID—19 pandemic has shortened my Fulbright Program in Australia, which was meant to be nearly a year long, by three months. Since my project was meant to be laboratory-based, this means I missed out on one-third of time to potentially create a new diagnostic tool for an often-misdiagnosed, rare, bone marrow failure and cancer-predisposition syndrome called Fanconi Anaemia (FA).

The pandemic has also affected life now that I have returned to the United States as I have been in isolation for nearly two weeks now after flying back home. All non-essential businesses have closed, and I can’t spend the time with my niece and nephews as I had hoped for at the conclusion of my program.

What is its risk & impact on vulnerable communities, particularly to those whom your work is dedicated?

As a registered nurse, I can tell you that this virus, just as influenza and other respiratory illnesses, will impact nearly every age and health category in our communities. COVID—19 will be harder to fight off for those with pre-existing conditions and compromised immune systems, such as people who live with FA who are pre- or post-bone marrow transplant. This is because chemotherapy is given to these children and adults to suppress their immune systems before receiving stem cells from a donor, in an effort to prevent a reaction called graft vs. host disease, and to maximize positive impacts of obtaining this “new immune system,” which can take up to 100 days to grow to “normal” levels. These individuals are generally placed in social isolation for these 100+ days after the transplant, a similar concept to what all Americans and soon, Australians, are experiencing.

Some families who were nearing the end of their 100 days of social isolation following a successful bone marrow transplant are now having to continue this isolation along with you and me. Think about this—a child, parents, and siblings have already spent over three months largely alone and in their home or hospital room, after a declining illness and stressful hospitalization, and now, they must continue to stay home as long as the virus continues to spread. What perspective this gives in the midst of our struggles with social distancing and learning how to work from home.

How should the Australian and U.S. governments be responding from here?

A great indirect answer to this question which I have been holding on to over the past several weeks is this: we won’t know if we overreact to this situation with drastic social isolation measures and large changes in the way health care is delivered in this time. We will know, however, by the numbers of people dying and becoming critically ill, whether we grossly underreacted.

With that, Singapore has been praised in the media for their response to COVID—19 and how they have expertly managed to contain the spread of the virus. This success, despite being one of the first countries to report detection of the virus and nearing the top of the list by number of confirmed cases in early February, has been attributed to building health care infrastructure capacity, aggressive testing, transparent case reporting, quick and clear social interventions, and frequent and consistent public health communications. Read more here.

How should the Australian and U.S. public be responding?

The past seven months have taught me resilience personally and professionally, as laboratory experiments teach you to expect the worst, and question the best results. I believe the U.S. and Australian public should be responding by learning to become familiar with the unknown and settling into the discomfort that comes with adjusting our day-to-day lives. Listen to public health advisories and take notes from the scientists, health care providers, and experts. As I learned the mindset of managing emotional expectations and resilience related to experiments from research assistants, fellow students, and post-doctoral scientists:

“Maybe scientists have a role to play here beyond the hard work going on to understand this new coronavirus, chasing vaccines and new drugs?

We are comfortable swimming in the unfamiliar,

We know how to float on a sea of uncertainty.

We know it’s OK to say ‘I don’t know’ or ‘good question.’”

From a really great article about how our collective mindset should shift toward becoming more comfortable with uncertainty.

What do we need to do in the future to avoid or mitigate risks of further pandemics?

If we look again to Singapore, a task force was built across several governmental agencies beginning in 2003, following the SARS outbreak, with the aim to coordinate communication and interventions for future pandemics. Collaborations and partnerships across expertise and industries should be prioritized, and creating plans for future disasters of similar scale seem to have highly benefitted Singapore—if I were to hope for the future of our countries and the global health care field, it would be based off of this adaptive, successful model.

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