Dec. 30, 2020
To Members of the Baylor College of Medicine Community:
Last week a few of us were reflecting – via Zoom of course – on the year that was 2020. One of my colleagues made a relatively simple statement: "We should remember, the pandemic has taken from many, but it has given to a few."
Much has been written about our transition to a new and more hopeful year, but few of these ruminations will match the simple profundity of this statement. We immediately grasp that COVID-19 has "taken from many." It has taken our health. Nationwide, we are now at over 325,000 dead. Perhaps the only hint of a hopeful sign is the national death rate may have flattened out last week, after steadily increasing for the past seven weeks. Let us hope this trend continues.
Last Spring, I remember thinking that I do not really know anyone well with COVID-19, but we all knew of someone who had it – a friend of a friend. Now, most of us know multiple people close to us who have been impacted. I fervently hope this is not how we will come to feel about COVID deaths in the Spring. Today, most of us know of someone who has died. As we slog through this long, dark winter, death will sadly become more commonplace.
It has taken our vigor. A number of people have survived the disease only to discover they are in the small but significant group of people with lingering fatigue, shortness of breath or other symptoms. Although the percentage of people with longer-term sequelae may be relatively small – not yet firmly established, but likely 5-10% - a small percentage of 20 million U.S. cases is still a very big number.
It has not taken – but has severely tested – the emotional and physical resilience of our front-line hospital workers. If you look at the Texas Medical Center numbers this week, there are no signs this current surge has peaked. New community cases are up. Test positivity rates continue to climb. The rate of hospitalization is increasing, and the total hospital census is climbing steadily, day in and day out. Our regional COVID-19 census peaked in mid-July at 2,455 patients. Two weeks ago, we were at half that level – today, 70%. In the next month or so we will exceed our July peak census levels. To say our providers have performed admirably seems trite. To hail them as heroes seems too easy. They are people who are neglecting their own well-being and families to care for us.
It has taken our livelihoods. Many small businesses lie in ruin. To many of us, the shuttering of a business elicits a casual response: "I wonder what will go in that space next?" To business owners, it represents the death of a dream, loss of financial investment, and sweat of their owners. Particularly hard-hit are people on the lower end of the economic scale working in service industries. Many are either out of work, or if fortunate enough to have kept their jobs in environments where their risk of SARS-CoV-2 infection is high.
It has taken – or at least damaged – our future. It is difficult to assess at this point the impact of the disruption to our educational system, but there will be an impact on our youth. This impact will echo well beyond the end of the pandemic.
Much has been taken.
But my colleague is correct. The pandemic has taken from many, but given to a few. Not all businesses are failing. Look at the share price of Amazon, Netflix or UPS. Since March, they have increased between 70-100%. While it may be true that some white-collar workers have worked harder than ever and sacrificed personal travel and vacations, some who are able to work remotely have actually been given a gift of time. You may love to complain about Zoom, but, for some, work-life balance has actually improved during the pandemic - no commuting, the ability to interact with family during downtimes, and enhanced schedule flexibility.
As I look around our own organization, I see opportunity given to many. We are doing work that, while hard, is meaningful and fulfilling. For many, work performed this year will define careers. I have seen fruitful collaborations develop between people in the organization who literally would never have met each other in normal times. Research grant funding is up. Publications are up.
Never in my life have I approached a New Year recognition – "celebration" seems the wrong word – that is so meaningful. As we enter the last year of our Great Pandemic, I ask that each of you ask yourself a question: Are you better or worse off today than you were this time last year? On balance, have you been "taken from" or "given to?" Do not overthink the question. For most of us, the answer will be intuitively obvious.
If you find yourself in the "given to" group – you and your family have not suffered significant health problems, you have not suffered financially – perhaps you have a degree of survivor's guilt. As we enter 2021 – a year that will see an end to this collective nightmare – I ask we do more than feel a vague sense of guilt. Let us do some small thing to give back:
- Give the gift of your patience. Be kind to others. You do not know what might have been taken from your colleague, co-worker or grocery store clerk. Assume everyone you meet has experienced some degree of negative COVID-19 impact.
- Give your time. For those of you who may have gained time through remote work, give some of that time back. Contact your not-for-profit of choice, or your child's school. Ask if they can use your time and tell them you can give them a day (in a safe and appropriately distanced way). Recall that Baylor provides a benefit to all benefit-eligible employees to take one paid day to volunteer.
- Give your financial support. Americans are a generous people. Look at your typical charitable contributions and give a little bit more. Make a modest, unexpected financial gift to people who have helped you over the past year – hairdressers, paper carriers, repairmen. When you eat out (out-of-doors and well-spaced) or order in, increase your new "normal" tip by 5-10%. Many of us would not miss a $10 increase on the cost of the meal, but it will make a real difference to the person providing you service.
This has been a year like no other. I look with hope to the future. This current surge has not peaked but eventually will recede. Over the next several months, vaccinations will start to make a difference. The pandemic will end. The past year will no doubt be remembered as the year much was taken. Let us all come together to make sure 2021 becomes the year much is given.
Happy New Year.
James T. McDeavitt, M.D.
Senior Vice President and Dean of Clinical Affairs
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