Alumni Spearhead COVID-19 Responses

Dispatches from the Pandemic: Treating infected soldiers, feeding the hungry, sequencing virus genomes, and ensuring dental safety, Tufts graduates lead their communities through challenging times
“Being resourceful and flexible, willing to assume some risks, and developing efficient, effective solutions to problems has helped guide me through this challenging time,” says Barbara Bronstein, J76, founder of Second Servings in Houston. Photo: iStock.
“Being resourceful and flexible, willing to assume some risks, and developing efficient, effective solutions to problems has helped guide me through this challenging time,” says Barbara Bronstein, J76, founder of Second Servings in Houston. Photo: iStock.
September 30, 2020

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Tufts alumni around the globe are responding to the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic with innovative ideas and a generous spirit. “Dispatches from the Pandemic” is an occasional series featuring the voices of some of those Tufts graduates. Do you know of others who are leading in their communities? Let us know at now@tufts.edu.

“Despite how deadly Ebola is, it’s not as easily transmitted as COVID-19.”

Neel Shah, A06, M12. Photo: Russell Toof/U.S. Army

Anesthesiologist Neel Shah, A06, M12, a major in the U.S. Army, heads up the COVID airway team at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center, an Army-run hospital in southwest Germany. Any U.S. military member serving in a combat zone who contracts COVID-19 is evacuated to his hospital. If the patient is gravely ill and must be put on a ventilator, Shah and his team manage the process.

In the beginning of the crisis, the patients medically evacuated to Landstuhl from places like the Middle East, Africa, and Afghanistan were representative of the high-risk categories. They were older individuals.

But then a younger soldier arrived. The soldier was otherwise healthy, but devastated by COVID-19, requiring a breathing tube, a central line, an arterial line, and IVs. I’m 35, and saw myself in the soldier. It was scary. I had read accounts of young, healthy people getting very ill, but I hadn’t seen it first-hand. Fortunately, the soldier recovered.

I was deployed to Liberia during the Ebola crisis and that experience was invaluable when it came to setting up Landstuhl’s COVID-19 wards. Ebola is orders of magnitude scarier than COVID-19 but despite how deadly Ebola is, it’s not as easily transmitted as COVID-19, which appears to spread like wildfire.

There are asymptomatic people walking around with COVID-19 in their nose—sneezing and coughing. While they may feel fine, they could be infecting hundreds of people who may become very ill. With Ebola, people had to be sick in order to transmit it to someone else, so you generally knew whom to stay away from. In contrast, COVID-19 is a hidden enemy that you may not be able to identify.

— as told to Vicki Ritterband

“This crisis has reinforced my belief in collaboration.”

Barbara Bronstein, J76. Photo: Houston Rockets

Barbara Bronstein, J76, is the founder of Second Servings, a nonprofit that has rescued more than $40 million worth of food since 2015. The organization delivers food to more than 175,000 people in need in the Houston area each year through partnerships with more than 90 local charities.

When COVID-19 struck, it caused a major disruption in the food supply chain. Suddenly, hotels, schools, the convention center, sports venues, business cafeterias, and restaurants were forced to close and events were canceled. Fortunately, many businesses turned to Second Servings to rescue their valuable perishable food and get it to the people who needed it.

I knew we had to do more. We quickly created Houston’s largest mass meal relief program, “Dinner’s On Us,” to provide chef-prepared heat-and-serve meals starting in early April. To date, we’ve conducted 24 drive-through distributions, providing nearly 100,000 meals to those in need.

Hess Corporation donated the services of its staff to prepare the meals, using ingredients Second Servings started buying, thanks to community support, for the very first time. We’re purchasing food at a discount from a longstanding supporter, Sysco. Another partner is donating freezer warehouse space, while another is helping with trucking needs.

This crisis has reinforced my belief in collaboration. Without strong partnerships, we never could have pulled our relief program together so quickly. The generous community support we’ve received is enabling us to keep growing our operations. Being resourceful and flexible, willing to assume some risks, and developing efficient, effective solutions to problems has helped guide me through this challenging time.

With the high unemployment that COVID-19 has caused, the severe need for food will continue, but thankfully, Second Servings will be on the front lines in Houston to help.

--as told to Laura Ferguson

“I was seeing how unfair things are in the fight to stop the pandemic.”

Adrianne Gladden-Young, A04

Adrianne Gladden-Young, A04, is a senior research associate at the Broad Institute and Harvard University, where she helps track the origin and spread of infectious disease. She has been involved with the lab’s efforts to sequence genetic codes to better track viruses responsible for severe outbreaks of Ebola, Zika, Hepatitis A, and now, COVID-19. 

Since March, we've been collecting clinical samples from people who've tested positive for COVID-19 to sequence the virus genomes. Tracking mutations in the genome is critical to reveal how and where the virus was introduced in the Boston area and how it’s spreading, which in turn allows us to help public health professionals make informed decisions about how to best protect people.

I feel very fortunate to be able to help in the fight against COVID-19, even if it's in a small way. With this disease, when you protect one person, you potentially protect a whole community.

My decision to submit an essay to The Atlantic [“Give Black Scientists a Place in this Fight”] grew out of being part of the scientific community responding to the pandemic. I was motivated by how imbalanced the response was. We know that science—from study design to the way that we interpret our data—is always based on personal perspective. And when you have limited perspective, there will always be blind spots. 

I was even more motivated after the murder of George Floyd. I was seeing how unfair things are in the fight to stop the pandemic—in the research, in testing, in deciding who stays safe—and how that’s connected to the fight for justice. I knew then, I just can't be silent. 

as told to Laura Ferguson

“Our expertise was never more needed.”

Janis Moriarty, D94

Janis Moriarty, D94, a dentist in suburban Boston, was president of the Massachusetts Dental Society (MDS) when COVID-19 hit and the society recommended that dentists defer all non-emergency services.

We were the first state dental society in the country to take such action. We knew it would mean closures, layoffs, and furloughs, but we did it with the best interest of keeping everyone safe.

MDS received an amazing number of calls to clarify even the most basic information, such as what actually constitutes a dental emergency. Many people just needed reassurance that they were doing the right things to keep everyone safe. We set aside the regular business of the society to focus on crisis management.

We made a decision early on to get information on the virus, and all the important safety measures, to any dentist regardless of their membership. Because of the need to get out the message about COVID-19, the workload was probably double or triple what we would have done normally.

In the very beginning, we had a drive where we had members donate any PPE (personal protective equipment) they could to the front lines in the hospitals. Our society collaborated with MEMA (Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency). Later on, MEMA supplied us with PPE for members who were seeing emergency patients. It came full circle.

Our expertise was never more needed. I’ve never been prouder of our members or our staff.

—as told to Kim Thurler