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Op Eds

We Might Run Out of Masks, But We Can’t Run Out of Hope

By Eugene J. Vaios
Eugene J. Vaios ’14 is a resident physician at Cambridge Health Alliance. He is also a graduate of Harvard Medical School and Harvard Business School.

Working on the frontlines as a doctor in Massachusetts has been an exercise in courage and maintaining hope in the face of tragedy.

Currently, the United States is home to over 500,000 coronavirus cases, representing around 30 percent of the global disease burden. Over 20,000 deaths in America have been attributed to the virus. In Massachusetts, over 25,000 individuals, including hundreds of frontline providers, have tested positive for COVID-19. At our own community hospital, the intensive care unit has had to more than double its capacity to meet the demand for ventilators.

In addition to its emotional and physical toll, the pandemic has revealed the shortcomings of our healthcare system. Before the crisis began, nearly 30 million Americans lived without medical insurance. The Department of Labor now reports a record 6.6 million Americans filing for unemployment benefits. Experts anticipate that these numbers will add to the swelling ranks of uninsured individuals who in this moment of crisis must choose between financial security and essential care.

Meanwhile, hospitals are straining under the influx of patients. Despite efforts to reduce consumption of supplies by reallocating providers and canceling elective surgeries, demand continues to rise. Currently, the unit cost for surgical masks stands at nearly ten times pre-crisis levels. The federal government’s delay in invoking the Defense Production Act has also led to bidding wars between the Federal Emergency Management Agency and local entities, further driving up prices and delaying the arrival of essential supplies. Newly announced customs policies in China, which produces 116 million masks and respirators per day, threaten to further delay the availability of critical gear at hospitals around the world struggling to cope with the pandemic.

However, we cannot run out of hope.

From the moment the pandemic announced itself in the U.S., the crisis has been outmatched only by the solidarity shown by everyday Americans, from physicians and nurses to custodial staff and entrepreneurs. Crowdfunding efforts to provide hospitals with masks have been active across the country on websites like GoFundMe. At our own hospital, anonymous individuals have been phoning in donations and dropping off spare masks from local laboratories and other workplaces in Cambridge and Boston. Harvard alumni — like Vivian Kao who founded the organization M.A.D. Masks — have shipped thousands of N95 respirators from abroad to protect frontline workers at Cambridge Health Alliance and other hospitals.

The crisis has also sparked a wealth of innovation. Groups like Formlabs are 3D printing test kits, ventilator parts, and face shields. Coronavirus tests once required a five-day wait, but now results are available in just five minutes thanks to point-of-care advancements by Abbott Labs. Companies like L’Oréal, Bacardi, and Anheuser-Busch have redesigned manufacturing lines to produce hand sanitizer to support hospitals and protect healthcare workers. Following changes in Medicare policies to encourage telehealth services, doctors are now hosting virtual appointments and lowering the barriers to accessing medical care. Meanwhile, researchers at the University of Nebraska and Duke University have pioneered the use of ultraviolet light and vaporized hydrogen peroxide to decontaminate N95 masks for reuse. Those researchers have openly shared their protocols, which are now being adopted across the country.

Most importantly, reports indicate that the spread of coronavirus is slowing in parts of the world. In New Rochelle, New York, once an epicenter of the outbreak, rates of new cases have declined. New diagnoses and deaths in Italy have also slowed. Though it is still early in the pandemic, these victories offer evidence that drastic containment efforts can flatten the curve.

These stories of solidarity, innovation, and progress give us reason to hope. In the hospital, hope has become our most essential resource. It’s the difference between making it through to the end of a shift and wanting to give up halfway. It’s what spurs us to arrive early and leave late, to put the health of our patients above our own. And it’s what gives us all the resilience to persevere regardless of what the statistics say.

This hope should not be mistaken for blind faith, misplaced judgment, or woeful ignorance. Rather, it’s an inner belief that despite the obstacles ahead, better times await — that through courage, patience, and strength, we will triumph and our sacrifices will not be in vain.

Every generation is faced with a defining moment. This is ours. In the process, we might run out of masks, but we can’t run out of hope.

Eugene J. Vaios ’14 is a resident physician at Cambridge Health Alliance. He is also a graduate of Harvard Medical School and Harvard Business School.

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