WHO, Emory experts discuss COVID-19 challenges in Facebook Live event

Woodruff Health Sciences Center | Jan. 14, 2021

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The COVID-19 pandemic is a challenge for global equity, as much as it is for medicine and the economy, infectious disease experts from the World Health Organization (WHO) and Emory said during a virtual event, broadcast via Facebook Live, on Wednesday.

“When we talk about tolerance and kindness and solidarity, they’re probably the most powerful countermeasures we have right now,” said Mike Ryan, MD, executive director of the WHO’s Health Emergencies Program. Originally from Ireland, Ryan (see this STAT profile) leads the team responsible for containment and treatment of COVID-19 at WHO.

Ryan and Maria Van Kerkhove, MD, technical lead of COVID-19 response at WHO, joined with Emory physicians Colleen Kraft, MD and Carlos del Rio, MD to answer viewers’ questions during the discussion. They reflected upon the exhaustion of health care workers, noted challenges in health care communication, and hailed the progress in developing vaccines that are expected to save lives.

“One thing that has gone right is research,” Del Rio said. “The fact that we’ve been able to go from sequencing a virus in January, to having vaccines approved and ready to be deployed by December, should really be considered one of the greatest achievements – for everybody.”

“Other things have not gone well,” he added. “One of the worst things in the pandemic response in the United States has been how masks have been politicized, instead of being simply a public health intervention.”

Del Rio is professor of medicine, epidemiology and global health, executive associate dean of Emory University School of Medicine at Grady Health System, and a co-investigator on vaccine studies at Emory.

Both Ryan and Del Rio called for the United States to rejoin the COVAX Initiative, proposed by international aid organizations to support equal access of participating countries to COVID-19 vaccines. Discussing the initial stages of vaccine roll-out in the United States and Europe, Ryan pointed out that many countries around the world may not receive substantial amounts of vaccine until 2022 or later.

“There are populations out there who want, and who need vaccines, but are not going to get them unless and until we learn to share better,” Ryan said.

The WHO officials stressed the needs for governments to support those who are isolated– both their own citizens and people who may be displaced because they are migrants or refugees.

 “It’s easy for me to say ‘Go into isolation if you’re a case, or stay in quarantine if you’re a contact,’ but people need to be supported to do so,” Van Kerkhove said. “So that they can feed their families, and make sure that they can earn a living and take care of their loved ones.”

Closer to Atlanta, challenges in communication and misinformation around COVID-19 call for health care professionals to both explain and to listen, said Colleen Kraft, MD, associate chief medical officer at Emory University Hospital and a member of the Georgia Governor’s coronavirus taskforce.

Kraft said: “I’ve been in the community, where some people don’t understand that their behaviors affect the people who are in our hospital – that their behaviors affect that nurse, who’s just exhausted from taking extra shifts.”

“One of the things we’ve been doing locally is trying to understand the reasons for people not wanting to get vaccines,” Kraft added.