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Archive Infection Control 2020

Making Sense of the COVID-19 Crisis

Q&A with Timothy P. Lahey, MD, MMSC, infectious disease doctor and medical ethicist.

Timothy P. Lahey, MD, MMSC

You recently took to social media to host a Q&A about the coronavirus. What surprised you most about the response?
In academic literature, it takes months or even years to prepare research for publication — months to get it accepted and months more for it to be published and seen by a select group of experts in a narrow field. I decided to do the Q&A one Saturday morning, set it up within hours and overnight it had reached well over 50,000 viewers. The questions were exactly what we're hearing from patients and clinicians. You can tell people are hungry for believable, unvarnished and concrete information about this scary pandemic. It was gratifying to get such positive feedback about the session.

Infection prevention professionals are in the spotlight. What do you hope will come out of this increased exposure?
The major failures of the U.S. pandemic response, particularly in comparison to other countries like South Korea, have shown powerfully that to prevent infection we need to invest in our public health infrastructure. We need strong capacity for testing and contact tracing, particularly as we re-open the economy.

What role does medical ethics play in health care — especially in the pandemic we are witnessing right now?
Patients, families and clinicians make challenging life-and-death decisions every day. Sometimes these decisions can lead to conflict, or challenging ethical questions that ethicists help unravel. What is different in the age of COVID-19 is how these questions are urgent and applicable across the entire country and thus playing out in the public eye. It makes me glad to be in the career I'm in, to try and guide good-hearted people attempting to make the best decisions during a very difficult time.

What lessons from the AIDs epidemic apply to what we're seeing right now with the coronavirus outbreak?
In AIDs care, we've had to learn how to empower patients to reduce their risk of transmission in realistic, livable ways. That experience can teach us a lot about COVID-19. Sure, if we all took every breath within a Hazmat suit, we'd have near zero risk of infection. Instead, we can educate people about means of risk reduction, and help them figure out which means is workable. Along the way, this can involve reassuring people — reminding them really — that 100% safety isn't really the goal. Rather, we are trying to live a good life, with reasonable safety. OSM

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