On Monday morning in New York City, shortly after 9 a.m., critical care nurse Sandra Lindsay became the first person in this country to receive the Pfizer and BioNTech coronavirus vaccine. In doing so, she immediately become symbolic of a new beginning in the fight against a raging pandemic. The event will stand as a rare and much-needed bright spot in the fight against “a viral disease that has now killed nearly 300,000 people in the U.S. and more than 1.6 million people worldwide,” NPR’s Bill Chappell reminds us.
What it also does is give us reason for hope. As Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases proclaimed on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” “Help is on the way.”
According to recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, health care workers and residents of long-term care facilities will be first in line to get the shots. The agency’s advisory panel will meet in the coming weeks to determine which groups should get a vaccine next. Considered are teachers, emergency personnel such as police officers and firefighters, and other workers deemed essential in the transportation and food industries. This next phase cannot happen too soon — especially for our firefighters working in the thick of COVID-19 hot zones.
These first responders are often the first to arrive following a 911 call. “Many are trained as emergency medical technicians and paramedics, responsible for stabilizing and transporting those in distress to the hospital. But with the pandemic, even those not medically trained are suddenly at high risk of coronavirus infection,” writes Kaiser Health News.
While firefighters have not generally been counted among the ranks of frontline health care workers getting infected on the job, according to the Kaiser report, “As of Dec. 9, more than 29,000 of the International Association of Fire Fighters’ 320,000 members had been exposed to the COVID virus on the job.” Of those, 21 have died. Let this be another vivid reminder that we are in the beginning of this next phase of an epidemic that is raging at the moment and not going to magically go away.
“Once we get to the back half of 2021, we can probably begin relaxing (the precautions),” says Dr. Tom Frieden, former director for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and current president of Resolve to Save Lives, a global public health initiative, in an NBC News report.
“By summertime, we could see the curve of the epidemic start to bend,” adds Dr. Michael Saag, associate dean for global health at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. “The problem is getting to that point. Tragically, we’re headed for the absolute worst experience with this epidemic so far.”
Dr. Jeff Pothof is chief quality officer and emergency medicine physician at University of Wisconsin Health in Madison. At present, “His hospital system is so overwhelmed that his team has had to redirect some Covid-19 patients to makeshift ‘field hospitals’ in the local exposition center, normally used for the Wisconsin State Fair,” writes Erika Edwards for NBC.
Noting that the United States spends more money on health care than any other country, Pothof adds: “You just shake your head and wonder: How did we get to the point where, here in the United States, we need to turn exposition centers into field hospitals?”
In projecting how 2021 plays out, Dr. Richard Besser, president of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and former acting director of the CDC, believes that it “depends, to a large extent, on what we do right now.”
Dr. Bernard Chang, an associate professor of emergency medicine and a psychologist at Columbia University, explains to Edwards that the human behavior he has witnessed “gives him hope for a brighter 2021.”
“People are adapting to this new world that we’re living in,” says Chang. “People who were untethered from their traditional social connections found new ways to engage with people.” Things such as videoconferencing and going on walks. The crux of it being that “societal adaptation” may be the thing that propels Americans through the pandemic — where we not only survive but also thrive once again.
In biology, adaptation refers to the process by which a species becomes fitted to its environment. In business, adaptation leads to innovation and taking calculated risks. As noted by Besser, the administration “invested big time in vaccines and medications, telling companies: Go for it, start the manufacturing even before the studies are done, because hopefully some of these will turn out to be keepers.” “Those bets paid off,” Edwards writes.
“Covid-19 has fostered a wave of innovation” states Milan Kordestani, founder of the Entrepreneur Leadership Network, in a November opinion piece in Entrepreneur magazine. Reported in Bloomberg in October, Victor Hwang, Founder and CEO of Right to Start, a campaign to rebuild the American economy by putting entrepreneurs first, goes even further. “Entrepreneurship is the vaccine to revive our urban economies,” he writes. “Even before the pandemic, we were in a startup slump. Business creation in the U.S. had fallen overall to its lowest rate in more than 40 years. … While our nation must focus on reopening existing businesses, historically it’s new businesses that create virtually all job growth, including replacing jobs lost.”
“Perhaps the most crucial role that entrepreneurs take during a crisis is that they signal a commitment to recovery,” says Kordestani.
As noted recently by Time magazine, the American system of educating would-be doctors has not changed much for decades — until recently. In February 2019, the Kaiser Permanente health system announced the creation of a new kind of medical school to shape the future of medical education for the post-pandemic generation.
As explained by reporter Jamie Ducharme, “The (new medical school) curriculum would emphasize cultural competency, patient and provider well-being, and the elimination of socioeconomic disparities in the medical system. Students would see patients right away, and hands-on learning would replace many lectures.”
When we finally get through this pandemic and into recovery, we may see such innovation and entrepreneurial spirit as its silver lining.