New vaccines are bringing hope that the world may vanquish the COVID-19 pandemic, but the challenges ahead are vast, with about 5 billion people needing the vaccine to achieve herd immunity worldwide.
That was the grave assessment of William Summerskill ’76, during “Rising to the COVID Challenge,” a Groton alumni panel on Thursday December 17. The panel featured Dr. Summerskill, who left retirement to resume editing for The Lancet, a preeminent medical journal; David Cheever ’05, an emergency physician serving the Navajo nation in New Mexico; and Chekemma Fulmore-Townsend ’97, CEO of the Philadelphia Youth Network (PYN). The panel was moderated by Groton School Trustee Dr. Alfred Winkler ’85, P’23.
The discussion covered the varied effects, professional and personal, of the raging pandemic—from the need for the Gallup Indian Medical Center to improvise “homemade” sanitizing wipes, to philanthropists’ willingness to cut red tape for PYN, to the breathtaking pace at which medical research papers arrived at The Lancet—more than one hundred each day.
Dr. Summerskill spoke of the astonishing “pace of the science,” the amount of work done in the past year, and the enormous work that remains. “If the vaccine is 90 percent effective . . . we’re getting up to needing to vaccinate two-thirds of people for herd immunity—that’s 5 billion people in the world,” he said.
Information was rarely concrete; it mutated rapidly and continues to. “Every week, really twice a week, what we knew changed, both with new discoveries and the debunking of old assumptions,” Dr. Summerskill said.
The other panelists also described a world that demanded nimble adaptability. In just three weeks, Ms. Fulmore-Townsend had to pivot PYN’s educational and job training programming—lifelines to the community—to a world that had suddenly gone virtual.
Dr. Cheever—a frontline worker who had received a COVID-19 vaccine the day before the panel discussion (and was “feeling great”)—described a rapid switch from being a brand new member of the Emergency Department at the Gallup Indian Medical Center in Gallup, New Mexico, to playing a key role as the hospital expanded its ICU, moved treatment areas outdoors, and otherwise tackled COVID-19 in one of country’s hardest-hit areas. “It went from a space of figuring out how to be an attending [physician] just out of residency . . . dealing with what we normally see in an Emergency Department, to suddenly being overwhelmed and being thrust into some of the leadership of our department,” he said.
When asked what they hoped for as they anticipate the coming change in the U.S. administration, Dr. Cheever and Ms. Fulmore-Townsend noted the need for resources. “Stabilizing resources,” said Ms. Fulmore-Townsend. “The unemployment rate in this country is steadily rising . . . no matter what your politics are, if we want to spur the economy we’re going to have to make some investments in families, because families are struggling pretty consistently.”
Dr. Cheever emphasized the burden on rural hospitals like his. Larger, urban hospitals are stretched beyond capacity, but “you also have to recognize how that affects the hospitals that are referring into those places,” he said. His hospital lacks equipment, staff, and space. “We’re treating patients outside in five degree weather,” he said. “We are having a really hard time retaining and recruiting our nursing staff.”
Dr. Summerskill explained why the U.S. may have been crushed by the virus. Countries that had endured the SARS epidemic in 2003 or that had a culture of mask-wearing fared much better, he said, while the U.S. and the United Kingdom, where “the focus on individualism that has reaped so many benefits and advances may, when it comes to a pandemic, be a disadvantage when compared to a more communal responsibility that people might have.”
He shared hopes for a new, stronger relationship between the U.S. and the World Health Organization, for renewed interest in universal health coverage in the U.S., and for a new attitude as light emerges at the end of the pandemic tunnel.