Frontlines of COVID-19

From the Frontlines of COVID-19: Agnes Scott Alumnae Share Their Healthcare Perspectives

Agnes Scott College’s Gay Johnson McDougall Center for Global Diversity and Inclusion recently hosted its second of four conversations, under a series titled, “Engaging Social Challenges: The Social and Cultural Implications of COVID 19.” This series seeks to especially highlight issues of inequities during COVID-19 as they relate to global diversity and inclusion.

In this second episode, three alumnae and a professor sat down at their computers to discuss healthcare perspectives from the front lines of the pandemic. Dr. Erin Bradley, assistant professor of public health, talked with Dr. Dinah Conti ’98, who practices pediatric medicine in Cedar Rapids, Iowa; Dr. Keri Norris ’02, Fulton DeKalb Hospital Authority's (FDHA) Chief of Health Policy and Administration; and Rachel Elise Wacks ’09, an epidemiologist with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs in Bedford, Massachusetts.

Bradley opened the conversation with the observation that preliminary data demonstrates racial and ethnic disparities in mortality rates from COVID-19 and asked the panelists if they had observed differences themselves in the severity of morbidity or mortality by race or socioeconomic characteristics. “The risk of contraction is strongly affected by socioeconomic factors and the severity of illness can be affected by multiple factors, including race or ethnicity. COVID-19 is a microvascular disease, and pre-existing conditions—such as diabetes or hypertension —contribute to the severity of illness and increase morbidity. Since diabetes and hypertension disproportionately affect African-Americans, COVID-19 also affects this population more severely. Additional socioeconomic factors, such as blue-collar versus white-collar jobs, add to risk of infection”, replied Conti.” She added that frontline jobs don’t often grant time off, or sick time, further limiting employees’ abilities to take care of themselves, or family members.

When asked if she thought the pandemic made the role of inequities worse, or simply exposed them, Wacks replied, “There are a myriad of inequalities and inequities that are being magnified and they’re all interrelated. I think race and economics are the two biggest that we’re seeing right now and they are truly endemic failures of society.” She further discussed the power and value placed on corporations, rather than people, as a societal failure, and launched a fascinating dialogue on “the underlying epidemic of inequity.”

Norris addressed the issue of policy, and specifically what policies have been or should be implemented to address social determinants of health and the inequities that fuel disparity. “Policy is the foundation of everything, of equalizing and creating equity for us in regards to education, housing, all of the social determinants of health, even in regards to access to care. Seeing that these particular populations of black and brown folks have this elevated vulnerability to COVID-19, then we are seeing that states and employers are trying to come up with policy. Is it fast enough? No. Is it just in time? We’re hoping so,” stated Norris. She went on to describe recent policies instituted by OSHA and new HR policies by employers regarding quarantine, and FMLA due to COVID-19. She described these as “just in time”, but pointed out the lack of policies around treatment, triage, access, and testing and concernedly discussed the reactive, rather than proactive nature of policy response to the pandemic.

The three panelists shared professional and personal accounts of policy and protocol disparities, highlighting instances of patients being diagnosed without proper testing and others being denied care. Conti and Norris both discussed the mental and emotional toll taken on healthcare workers having to triage which patients received ventilators, and witnessing the rising casualties from the pandemic. They each emphasized the need for mental healthcare for these front line providers, a perfect prelude of episode three, which specifically focuses on the mental health implications of COVID-19.

When Bradley asked the trio how their Agnes Scott education prepared them for the social challenges of their times, they each had rich answers. For example, Conti, from the class of ’98, recalled a speaker series on campus called, “Room With a View,” and described how it taught her valuable listening skills that have informed her work as a doctor when asking patients to share often sensitive information with her. “And of course,” she remembered, “having some classmates who would, ‘look, you need to stop talking and listen.’ I don’t think there’s any other situation that I’ve been in, before Agnes Scott or after, where someone could say that to me and I didn’t…storm off. That experience was very valuable in bringing me to where I am now.” Norris, from the class of ’02, stated, “For me, it was two-fold as a student and a faculty member…as an Africana studies major and being heavily involved in the science department, I was able receive the best of both worlds…access, the opportunity to challenge some of the ideals that were considered standard, being able to question things…being able to do that gave me the confidence to continue along those same linest, so that when I’m in rooms now where I’m the only person of color, or the only woman of color, or the only woman—it gives me confidence to be able to challenge the status quo.” Wacks, who graduated in 2009, replied, “I came to Agnes Scott and…learned that I knew so little. I had the entire world in front of me. I had people in my classes with such different opinions and backgrounds and experiences…without Agnes Scott, I wouldn't’t have been able to have the conversation that we’ve had here today. Agnes Scott gave me the ability to see complex things and not run away, and to have hard conversations, and to be an ally.”

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