The Coronavirus Chronicles

Not since the “Spanish Flu” of 1918 has the world experienced a pandemic of the scope and severity caused by the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus. The Biodefense Graduate Program was established at George Mason University in 2003 to educate the next-generation of biodefense and global health security scholars and professionals to prevent, prepare for, and respond to naturally occurring and man-made biological threats. Biodefense faculty, students, and alumni are working on the front lines, behind the scenes, and on the home front to respond to COVID-19. The Coronavirus Chronicles is a collection of their stories, based on their personal and professional experiences, of life during the pandemic. We hope these stories help the public better understand the challenges posed by COVID-19, how current and former members of the Biodefense Graduate Program have responded to these challenges, and how they have participated in the response to the pandemic at the local, national, and international levels. We also hope these stories will inspire others to seek careers in fields where they can contribute to humanity’s collective efforts to reduce the risks posed by pandemics, emerging infectious diseases, and other biological threats.

Heroes are Human Too: The Toll of COVID-19 on the Mental Health of Healthcare Workers– Biodefense MS student Madeline Roty discusses the mental health aspects of a pandemic and how the damage extends beyond those on the frontlines. “Fear of infecting others and time in quarantine or isolation contribute to psychological distress. Some healthcare workers have been forced to quarantine due to exposure to the virus or isolate after becoming infected. Many others are choosing to adhere to a modified quarantine in which they go to work but separate themselves from family, even in the absence of a known exposure.” Read more here

Groundhog Day 2020 – Biodefense PhD alum Jomana Musmar shares her experiences responding to the pandemic with HHS and the lessons she’s learned in not only working remotely while multitasking as a parent, but also what COVID-19 is revealing about how we function. “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.” Read more here.

Pandemic Pandemonium – Biodefense PhD student Janet Marroquin juggles conducting analyses of various chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear defense capabilities, parenting and acting as a teacher while working, and being a student. Marroquin notes that “I have probably thought about the effects of contagious disease more than any other topic in the past two years that I have been there. Now, it seems like there is no escaping the topic.  The disease seems to have consumed our lives even when the virus has not touched our bodies.  So, in response, I have created a few mitigation strategies to counter the effects of the quarantine in addition to those designed to counter the pandemic.” Reach her story here.

Research Labs Aren’t Ready for Social Distancing – Biodefense graduate student (wishing to stay anonymous) – how do you socially distance in a lab? Under the COVID-19 pandemic “pressures scientists in the laboratory setting face additional challenges of trying to conduct research under social distancing policies.  Most laboratories function with space as a precious commodity.  Physical bench space to conduct experiments is co-shared by many scientists in the same lab and crowded between common use equipment.  With researchers classically working elbow to elbow, the challenge of adapting the traditional research lab to work during a pandemic is significant.” Read more here.

A Day in the Life of a Molecular Biologist – Biodefense MS student Travis Swaggard discusses working as a senior biologist during the pandemic – “My work since COVID-19 became a pandemic and a serious threat to global health has focused almost entirely on testing different regions of the SARS-CoV-2 genome from synthetically derived sections of the virus. This is done using the same technique used to screen clinical samples in hospitals and laboratories, known colloquially in our field as qPCR, or quantitative polymerase chain reaction.” Read more here.

A Pandemic Juggling Act – LCDR Jennifer Osetek, PhD, discusses working in the USCG’s Office of Specialized Capabilities, teaching at Penn State for their Public Health Preparedness Option of the Master of Professional Students in Homeland Security program, and being a mom which now includes a role in virtual teaching. Dr. Osetek notes that “Coronavirus PPE quickly came to dominate a good part of our time. Working with experts across the USCG, we were involved in workgroups including those focused on protecting our members in the field, decontamination procedures, taking care of those who got sick, and deciding how to safely bring people back to work after exposures.” Read more here.

Masks Aren’t for Mental Health – Biodefense MS student Madeline Roty breaks down the mental health implications of the pandemic. Pulling from her nursing experiences, she emphasizes the need to include mental health conditions that might be impacted by the stay-at-home orders and financial stresses. “While much attention has been focused on the underlying medical conditions that make people more susceptible to the coronavirus, I am also worried about people with pre-existing mental health conditions. The consequences of the pandemic can exacerbate symptoms and prevent or delay access to treatments. Grief, depression, and anxiety caused by major triggers such as prolonged social isolation, the loss of loved ones, or financial insecurities are growing problems.” Read more here

Relearning Forgotten Lessons About Infection Prevention –Saskia Popescu, PhD, reveals the challenges of being on the frontlines in infection control during the COVID-19 pandemic. From PPE shortages to delays in testing, she discusses what it’s been like for those in healthcare. “COVID-19 though has been a different kind of challenge. We have forgotten the lessons we should have learned in 2014. Preventing the  disruptions that emerging infectious diseases cause to healthcare were no longer prioritized by most hospital administrators. The tiered hospital system set in place by the Federal government to prepare for and respond to special pathogens is now drastically reduced due to a lapse in funding that was not renewed.” Read more here.