Ok – I'll admit it — I thought things would be different by now. I expected (?fantasized) that the heat of the summer would make the virus go back to wherever it came from, and we'd take our masks off, shake hands, hug again, have parties and weddings, and go to the beach. Clearly, I was delusional and under-estimated SARS-CoV-2.
I always say that you have to experience every season of the year before something new feels familiar and “normal”. Usually I'm referring to a new job, a new home, a new school. But I'm thinking that the same thing could be said about a pandemic. Sheltered in our homes and distanced at work, we've experienced spring and now summer with our newest arrival to the microbial ecosystem — we are only halfway to whatever our new normal will be.
Of course, I don't have a crystal ball or any insider information as to what the next two seasons will bring. Predictions and preparations are typically made based on past experiences, and as we've heard way too many times, these are unprecedented times. But here's the common knowledge that will likely shape what we can expect:
- Fall is back-to-school season and as our working parents already know, many schools are in session already with distance learning. Juggling childcare and keeping an eye on schoolwork while simultaneously performing one's job is a big challenge that seems to be the new norm. Similarly, every school and college at UCD is bringing back students with a hybrid of in-person and remote learning. We will continue to be distance educators in our work- and home-life.
- According to advocacy representatives from major pathology organizations, there will be no major increases in supply production for COVID-19 tests through the end of year. We can expect test capacity to continue to be limited for at least one more season, and maybe longer.
- Winter is flu season – co-infections or sequential infections with flu and COVID-19 are anticipated to create sicker patients and place high demand on hospitals, healthcare systems, and laboratories. We will be busy. Since these illnesses can also affect our co-workers, flu shots are once again mandatory at UCD Health and we are encouraged to get our shot early to ensure a healthy and adequate workforce.
How can we prepare for this next phase of the coronavirus pandemic? Three steps are suggested in a recent article in Harvard Business Review. Though chiefly focused on business, this approach is very relevant to higher education and academic healthcare, too.
- Pause and take stock. Reflection has become a standard and important component to curricula in health professions, and is a lesson worth borrowing from own learners. Formally reflecting on one's experiences has been shown to enhance competence, humanism, and professionalism in housestaff, qualities that could help us all more successfully address the personal and professional stresses associated COVID-19.To encourage reflection and seek feedback on several aspects of the COVID-19 pandemic, our department conducted a brief informal survey of our faculty, housestaff, and some staff in June. We received 67 responses which provide important perspective for our own planning and preparedness — here is what we found:
- Top three challenges experienced early in the pandemic: 1) balancing family/childcare, 2) workload, 3) tie between safety/PPE and emotional health/stress interfering with productivity.
- Top three concerns as the hospital resumed full activity: 1) ability to absorb the surge of “back-up” work, 2) safety/PPE, 3) job security.
- Perceived “silver lining” related to one's work from the coronavirus: 1) flexible work locations and schedules, 2) technological adaptions (digital pathology, Zoom conferencing, etc.), 3) More attention to safety/PPE
- Comments from respondents encouraged more use of technology for clinical service (ex. digital pathology), conferencing/didactics, and for collaborative brainstorming sessions among researchers, as well as more telecommuting and flexibility of work schedules.
- Build resilience. In the HBR article, the authors note that the “coronavirus has demonstrated the immense power to surprise and upend even well thought out assumptions about how the world works….” They emphasize the necessity of creating options by actively preparing for multiple futures.
Options to create organizational resilience are in play in many parts of our department and university:
- We are running multiple platforms for COVID-19 testing, have more on order, and continue to evaluate new tests as they become available, like antigen tests and point-of-care tests that combine flu and SARS-CoV-2 testing, so that we have depth and diversity in our testing approaches. We are also collaborating with an industry partner on a very promising non-PCR high-throughput COVID-19 test method that can be help our laboratory overcome these supply chain roadblocks and get tests to our community.
- The entire University of California (UC), including our campus, continues to develop multiple approaches based on anticipated scenarios to safely bring students back to campus. I serve on taskforces for systemwide reopening of all 10 UC campuses as well as on the UCD taskforce – these groups create and model resilience by regularly considering new data, modifying their approaches, and providing several options to campus leaders so that each campus can find the right fit for their resources and for their unique campus culture.
- The UC has been a leader in creating flexibility for academic careers. Just last week, the Office of Academic Personnel sent a reminder that flexible work options are possible, including a compressed workweek, flexible hours, remote work, staggered schedules, and partial appointments or leaves. Flexibility for work-life integration has been a long-standing interest of mine. Though it took a pandemic, I'm so very pleased that our use of technology, including video conferencing and digital pathology, has allowed our faculty and many academic staff to do much of their work at a distance. Our department has maintained excellent service and education, met turnaround times expectations, and kept research program going while staying safe and taking care of their families. I plan to continue this flexibility, even beyond the pandemic, as the respondents to our department survey requested. This form of flexibility makes us much better prepared for many contingencies that may come our way.
- Capture advantage. Success is about beating trends and averages, as the HBR article points out. Many metrics show that we have exceeded the average during the COVID-19 pandemic. We have a strong financial advantage that exceeds that of other health systems nationally since we never fully shut down our services. The care that we provided also gives us the added advantage of a healthier community. Plus we have the incredible advantage of our world-class faculty and staff, the newest and best instrumentation, the reknown quality of the research and creative work that happens here, and the unparalleled resources of our campus and its many schools and colleges. These advantages are allowing us to develop new tests and treatments, support our community, and serve as a trial site for new vaccines.
As we experience every season to find our new normal, I encourage you to personally reflect, build your own resilience and capture the advantages around you. Even if we can't predict the future, we can help shape it and prepare. Fall is my favorite season and it will be with us soon – I hope that it will emerge as a favorite for everyone for many new and healthy reasons.