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Eight Lessons Learned From the COVID-19 Pandemic

Top infectious diseases expert shares takeaways during Women in Leadership event

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What You Need To Know

Michelle Barron, MD, discusses eight lessons learned throughout her work as an infectious diseases doctor during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Michelle Barron, MD, presented for the Women in Leadership Speaker Series on April 27, a perfect choice by organizers seeking a woman leader during the COVID-19 pandemic. Barron, a professor of medicine in the University of Colorado School of Medicine and a top infectious diseases expert in the state, was front and center of the public health crisis during the past two and a half years.

The year 2020 started with a fog of uncertainty regarding the new virus spreading rapidly throughout the world. Questions arose: Where is the microbe? How many? How virulent? How communicable? Of course, the world has experienced pandemics before, such as the Black Plague and the Spanish flu, but none as recent as the COVID-19 pandemic.

The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic reminded Barron of the SARS outbreak of 2003. While that health threat never became as widespread as COVID-19, the outbreak acted as a precursor for many health care workers, Barron said.

“A lot of the work in this arena started with SARS, where we started thinking, what if this had really hit us? What would we have done? Where would we put patients? Do we have enough PPE (personal protective equipment)?”

Barron shared eight chief lessons learned during the pandemic. Here is a synopsis of those takeaways.

COVID-19 has variable impact on individuals.

More younger people have gotten the virus, yet more older people have died from it. This has caused controversy – who do we target our public health measures to? How do we protect the right groups? The pandemic affects pregnant women and people of color disproportionately for a myriad of reasons, some political, some sociocultural, some physiological. The pandemic brought to light what an issue health equity can be and how important health outreach is.

Presenting scientific concepts to the public can be hard, and fear is a powerful emotion that makes for great headlines and clickbait.

Fear is universal, and at the beginning of the pandemic, we were given differing research about the mode of transmission, how long the virus can survive outside the body, to mask or not mask and the most effective type of masks. This led to the hoarding of supplies like disinfectant wipes. There were also ethical issues. For example, who does a mask protect – me or another person?

Scientists want to make their research simple, but it’s not black and white. There is nuance, and that’s hard to explain to millions of people. Headlines can be misleading. An example is the study of Ivermectin. It was a very small study and showed promising results, but it was not a part of a clinical trial, and the media ran with it before it could be adequately studied.

Science matters – it really matters if the science is actually good.

An example of this is the changing of the isolation and quarantine guidelines. The guidelines from the CDC changed from 14 days, to 10 days to five days, which created distrust from the public. Many thought the CDC was caving to political pressure. The science behind the changing guidelines was good. It was just not explained well.

Money can drive innovation but can cast doubt on the process.

The COVID-19 vaccines were developed so quickly because they had unlimited funds. Everyone in the world was dealing with the same problem. For contrast, it took 10 years to develop just a test for HIV. This speed of the vaccine development did cause distrust in the government’s process, and the United States hasn’t reached a 90% vaccination rate. But it’s remarkable that after just two years we have a vaccine and it works – 10 billion vaccines have been administered around the world.

The impact of COVID will affect us for many years to come.

Many people are dealing with long COVID, and we are still awaiting all the effects this will have on memory and brain development. On top of that, the mental health effects will follow us for years to come. It was especially difficult for healthcare personnel, college students, essential workers and young school children. Everyone was facing economic and social stressors on top of the pandemic.

You have to be comfortable with the fact that you can’t predict the unpredictable.

Weather reporters make this look easy. I think we have to take on that persona when we're dealing with situations like this, in terms of not knowing what we don't know, knowing we're going to make mistakes, and just being able to just keep moving on and keep smiling and saying, ‘Yep, we figured that out. We were wrong. And here's where we are today.’

We’ve seen this with the spread of variants, and they’ve been unpredictable.

The magic eight ball is always right. Or not.

No matter how hard we try, we can’t predict what’s coming. Will we have another pandemic? The answer is yes. What will it look like? I have no idea. So this I sometimes used for moments of levity, in that my ability to predict, or anybody's ability to predict what's coming, was about as good as my magic eight ball's answer.

“Chance favors the prepared mind.” – Louis Pasteur

Barron shared the quote, which has been with her throughout the pandemic, at the end of her presentation. And I think that's probably the most important lesson that we need to continue to use in our future.

Topics: COVID-19, Faculty,

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Michelle Barron, MD