Groundhog Day 2020

Jomana F. Musmar, MS, PhD, Public Health Advisor in the Office of Infectious Diseases and HIV/AIDS Policy within the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Health, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Disclaimer: This narrative does not represent the views of the U.S. Department of Human Health Services. They only represent Jomana Musmar’s personal perspectives and experiences.

Daniel Tiger sings about handwashing in the background while tiny hands covered in peanut butter attempt to give mommy a new hairstyle, all while I’m taking a 1-hour conference call and typing out action items to work on the following day. This is our new normal, multitasking at its finest. When chatter about a novel coronavirus in Wuhan first began in late 2019, the numbers didn’t make sense and my biodefense training immediately triggered the notion that any day now, it’s going to be in our backyard. We’ve learned about preparedness and resilience from SARS, H1N1, Amerithrax, and the tragedies of 9/11, but the transmissibility, high rate of infection, and unpredictable mortality rate for this particular pathogen make it scarier than these past experiences. While my training and expertise prepared me for the tsunami of response activities nationwide, I wasn’t prepared for the impact it would have on our daily lives, especially on my family. My husband, an ER physician who has been on the front-lines seeing COVID-19 patients in 18-hour shifts, my 81-year old mother who is in the highest risk category for COVID-19 and my fun-loving, 24-hour it’s-circus-time kids, all need my attention and all the time. We are the definition of a full-on frontline responder, high-risk of infection-type home. My mother needs frequent grocery deliveries to circumvent her urge to drive out and do her own shopping. Because of the possibility that my husband might bring home an unwanted biological ‘guest,’ my fear that one of us might get infected but be asymptomatic until the dreaded symptoms emerge keeps me up every night. Did my daughters just cough? Was it wet or dry? Is that a fever? Is my throat dry or is it allergies? Can I drop off my mother’s groceries or should I wipe down every single item I touched? The questions are endless. The juggle to sustain a daily ‘norm’ for all of us while realizing the reality of where we are and what’s to come has been a struggle, but we’re figuring it out day by day. 

This pandemic has really driven home a few key lessons that I was familiar with from my professional experience and biodefense education, but didn’t appreciate as fully and deeply as I do now. First, the sheer power of the virus driving this pandemic is amazing. This novel microscopic organism is altering the course of humanity. How we work, how we interact, how we learn, and how we live has changed forever. This biological event has revealed just how dependent the well-being and stability of every nation is on having a strong public health infrastructure. The pandemic has taken a toll not only on our public health and mental health, but our economic health—causing the highest unemployment rates since the Great Depression. Another important lesson learned is the need for everyone—from households to corporations to governments—to have a Plan B for continuity of operations for every aspect of life. Our reliance on the internet, laptops, and mobile phones has shown how pivotal a role this technology plays in being able to survive. In most of the world, these tools that we call necessities are considered luxuries. Also, the harsh reality that people around the world live in isolation from their loved ones (and without toilet paper plus much worse) on a daily basis is a rude awaking and a lesson in humility. Thankfully, my family has access to everything we need to live comfortably despite the disruptions and inconveniences imposed by the pandemic. I constantly have to remind myself that our issues are all first world problems, and we can still live a good life without much.

The final and most important lesson is that we are all in this together. As Malcom X said, “When ‘I’ is replaced with ‘we’ even illness becomes wellness.” To truly defeat this pandemic, a collective and consistent effort by everyone to safely socially distance themselves, regardless of race, religion, political affiliation, or identity, is absolutely crucial. We don’t need a lot to make it through, we just have to make it through together. Otherwise, all of our sacrifices thus far were for naught, and Groundhog Day will continue into 2021.

Dr. Jomana Musmar received her Phd in Biodefense from George Mason University in 2017. She also holds a Masters in Biomedical Science Policy and Advocacy (2006) from Georgetown University.  Jomana first joined federal service in 2009 by managing the National Biodefense Science Board under the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response. She then joined the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Health in 2015 to help establish and direct the Presidential Advisory Council on Combating Antibiotic Resistant Bacteria.

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