One year later: UNC health experts reflect on ‘shining examples’ and moving past the pandemic

Today marks exactly one year since the first COVID-19 patient was identified in North Carolina.

An invisible virus no one had ever heard of 12 month ago has registered more than 865,000 cases and stolen 11,363 lives.

Dr. Wesley Burks

Dr. Wesley Burks, the CEO of UNC Health and Dean of the UNC School of Medicine, said Wednesday’s anniversary was a time to reflect on the hard work, the fear, and the sense of purpose borne out of the pandemic.

“We weren’t sure what was going to happen. We definitely didn’t think we’d still be here today talking about it, ” confided Burks.

“But through all of this work, we are different – both collectively and personally.”

Dr. Alexa Mieses Malchuk, an assistant professor in the UNC Department of Family Medicine, said the COVID crisis underscored for her the struggle many marginalized communities face.

“What this COVID pandemic has done has shone a spotlight on health inequities that have existed in this country for decades,” explained Dr. Malchuk. “But it is the first time a global illness has brought these things to the forefront and grabbed everyone’s attention.”

Dr. Alexa Mieses Malchuk

Malchuk says she is now using her position as a woman and a person of color, who grew up in a lower socioeconomic background, to educate her patients about COVID and encourage them to get vaccinated.

Dr. Samantha Meltzer-Brody, chair of UNC’s Department of Psychiatry, said her takeaway
over the last 12 months was the promise and impact of tele-psychiatry in reaching those in crisis.

“We are now able to provide mental health care broadly across the state, to reach people in ways never [seen] before,” Meltzer-Brody said.

“Collectively we are able to take care of behavioral health needs much earlier, with experts, to hopefully decrease suffering and prevent long-lasting damage.”

Dr. Melissa Miller, director of UNC’s Clinical Molecular Microbiology lab, shared her concerns for the toll this has taken on her own colleagues.

Dr. Melissa Miller

Not only did they play a leading national role in developing accurate COVID-19 testing, they have conducted more than 250,000 tests.

“For the first time people are really seeing what the lab does, and how important to patient care laboratory tests are,” Miller shared.

“It’s with great sadnesss and pain that I look back at what we’ve been through in the last year, but also with hope that we have in front of us going forward.”

Dr. David Weber, UNC’s Medical Director of Infection Prevention, reflected on how little we really knew about the virus last March, and how scientists like Dr. Ralph Baric have helped pave a way out of this pandemic.

Weber believes that leading research will help North Carolina and the nation return to some sense of normalcy later this year.

Dr. David Weber

“With the current ability to give everyone the vaccine by May and the given current number of people who have already been infected, it’s likely we’ll begin to reach community protection levels by the end of May or June,” Weber offered.

But this is not a get out of jail free card.

Health professionals still worry about the variants that may escape the protection of the vaccines.

“But both the drug companies working on new therapies and the vaccine companies working on booster doses that cover these variants, give us hope that by the end of the year, life will return mostly to normal.”

Dr. David Wohl, a professor of infectious disease, says pathogens often find a way to take advantage of those who are marginalized, ignored or maligned in a community.

Dr. David Wohl

But he was struck by leaders on all levels to change the direction of ‘a horrible year.’

“Being the first to go in, the first to use PPE and show everyone else how to do it…and almost never saying ‘no,'” said Wohl in praising the tireless efforts of essential health workers.

Moving forward, Dr. Wohl says they will be focused on reaching into the community to accelerate vaccination rates among those who do not have access to high-speed internet or transportation and are challenged to make an appointment.

Over the past year, UNC Health has treated more than 1,700 COVID patients and administered 200,000 doses of vaccine across the state.

To learn more about getting vaccinated against the COVID virus, visit yourshot.org.

 

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