I ended up having quite the busy summer from my parents’ basement barcalounger in Madison, WI. For about six weeks from mid-May until late June, I made a valiant effort to balance my time between keeping up with studying for my MCAT, and collecting news, social media, video blog, and other disseminated stories of North Carolina frontline health workers regarding their COVID-19 experience…along with the occasional Zoom trivia or game night with friends, Global Health Concentration social committee meeting, or meeting with the COVID Behind the Numbers project team. I only escaped my lounge lizard life for a few workouts a week, walking the dog, or a much needed socially distanced Sunday afternoon round of golf. While the effort was valiant, by early June, the MCAT had consumed my life, my mind, and my soul, as it does to so many pre-medical students.
Despite the preoccupation with the MCAT, I continued to follow video blogs, podcasts, and other social media posts from frontline healthcare workers through the up-and-downticks of the summer of COVID-19 in North Carolina. Obvious themes began to present themselves as I worked with my initial data: PPE shortage or surplus, preparedness, rural homecare facilities versus urban hospitals, and support and appreciation for frontline healthcare workers existed among others. However, underlying these themes were a few more compelling, yet unsettling themes. As I reviewed stories, no matter the position in healthcare from Emergency provider or administrator, to public health analyst, nurse, or homecare facility worker, I found a concern for mental health to be interwoven in the stories I read. Many healthcare workers described the stress of not knowing what is to come, if they were prepared, or if their PPE was effective in protecting them and consequently their families. Many used spending time outside during breaks, or keeping up with yoga, meditation, or other practices to alleviate the stress of the time.
While not always applicable to the specific healthcare workers telling stories, inequity flowed through aspects of almost every set of stories I analyzed. Throughout the data collection process, Latinx and African American communities in North Carolina bore the brunt of this outbreak in terms of disproportionate cases and deaths relative to the percentage of the population each group occupies in the state. The most promising aspect was that, from early on, public health and other healthcare workers acknowledged, or highlighted the importance of recognizing and addressing these inequities in their stories. However, the numbers have yet to even out, or even come close. Seeing the themes streaming from this project to this most recent Black Lives Matter movement and protests of police brutality, looking at two major historical events occurring at the same time, and analyzing how issues of ethics, equity, and empowerment overlapped was simultaneously heart wrenching and fascinating. One physician likened dealing with the pandemic to “building the airplane while flying it” and “knowing how to build the plane…[but] being thrown different parts at a time.” Once we recognize an equity issue exists – mid-pandemic or not – this part of the plane needs to take priority in design, build, and reinforcement before any other area.
Considering my interest in infectious disease and mixed methods research, it has been extremely rewarding to apply the skills I have acquired to this point in my public health career to such a pertinent project. It provided a fun twist in that we had the freedom to search and gather qualitative data from a variety of open sources, rather than more standard qualitative interviews, which hopefully will be done in the future. I feel this project has been extremely informative: from finding expected and unexpected themes, to the roller coaster of ups and downs seen in the pandemic, to looking at the pandemic in conjunction with a critical social movement, and more. During hard times, many people turn inward, and harbor their feelings, emotions, and opinions. With the social response and activism this summer, and throughout the pandemic, it’s incredibly encouraging to see so many facing outward, using their voices, and expressing their triumphs and hardships. Now, we need to turn to those whose voices remain stifled, amplify them, listen, and work to make real change.