Last fall, A Woman’s Journey, the women's health program at the School of Medicine, surveyed more than 25,000 adults to identify the three COVID-19-related concerns that most interested U.S. citizens.
On Feb. 3, the results of this study were addressed in a webinar moderated by National Broadcasting Company (NBC) News Chief White House Correspondent Kristen Welker, who also moderated the final presidential debate.
The webinar featured three esteemed health professionals who tackle some of the largest questions surrounding the pandemic: epidemiologist and infectious disease physician Dr. Lisa Maragakis, immunologist Dr. Anna Durbin and pulmonologist Dr. Emily Brigham.
The event began with a brief message from Chief Executive Officer of Hopkins Medicine Paul Rothman expressing his disbelief that a year had passed since COVID-19 had been detected in the United States. He praised the Hopkins Hospital’s for treating over 6,000 patients over the course of the pandemic. Close to 600 of those patients passed away.
Rothman also raised concerns over the new variants of COVID-19. So far, the Hospital has recorded six cases of the U.K. variant and four cases of the South African variant. Despite these challenges, Rothman was optimistic. To date, Hopkins has vaccinated over 30,000 employees, and novel drugs to treat COVID-19 have also improved patient outcomes.
Rothman was steadfast in assuring the Hospital’s efforts to provide care to everyone in this crisis.
“Our major goal is to provide equitable and equal access to all populations,” he said.
Welker first asked about the current state of the pandemic in the United States.
“We are a year into this fight,” Maragakis said. “There have been 26 million cases and 440,000 deaths.”
As these statistics suggest, the U.S. has been, and is currently, devastated by the pandemic. Indeed, January 2021 was the worst month of the pandemic so far.
Despite these terrible statistics, vaccines are on the horizon. Already, over 30 million people have been vaccinated, leading to lower case numbers and hospitalizations. Maragakis believes the greatest risk currently is the emergence of novel variants of COVID-19, and she described a three-fold approach to ending this pandemic.
“Control transmission, stop the virus from mutating further and get everyone vaccinated as soon as possible,” she said.
Durbin added that the vaccine rollout has been highly impressive.
“We have distributed 32 million doses,” she said. “Our priority is reaching herd immunity as quickly as possible.”
Herd immunity is reached when enough of the population, usually 75%, is immune so that the virus is unable to spread.
In an email to The News-Letter, Durbin commented on concerns about new variants of COVID-19.
“Antibodies may not neutralize quite as well, especially in the South African strain,” she said. This means patients may become sick but will experience reduced symptoms.
Durbin also commented on the availability of drugs to treat COVID-19, especially remdesivir and dexamethasone. Remdesivir is an antiviral that has been shown to decrease the duration and severity of the illness, while dexamethasone has been used to support the body’s natural immune response.
Some patients have also begun receiving convalescent plasma serum from patients who have recovered from COVID-19. This serum uses another patient’s antibodies to fight the virus until the person’s own immune system kicks in.
When asked by an audience member, Brigham discussed the rapid development of vaccines for COVID-19. Brigham explained that vaccines tend to take multiple years due to the financial risk involved and long clinical trials. With COVID-19, the U.S. government instead bought vaccine doses prior to their development to guarantee funds for pharmaceutical companies even if their vaccines failed.
“The U.S. also accelerated clinical testing, while ensuring the safety of all participants,” Brigham said.
Overall, the speakers were cautiously optimistic about the pandemic. As Brigham suggests, we have reached an inflection point where vaccines are beginning to become readily available.
Maragakis hopes that vaccine distribution and herd immunity will be completed by this summer or fall but acknowledges social distancing will remain in effect for longer.
Through social distancing, vaccination of the U.S. population and control of COVID-19 variants, we may soon return to a more normal world.