COVID Poses Unique Challenges for International Students, Minseo Reflects

My Covid Story:

Minseo shares her story as an international boarding student from South Korea at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Early on, when things looked worse in her home country, she and her parents grappled with what made more sense: staying in the United States (U.S.) or going home. Thankfully, Minseo made the decision to return to her own country because the statistics quickly began to turn.

COVID Poses Unique Challenges for International Students, Minseo Reflects

Mid-February 2020, I sat at a table in my school’s grand dining hall and received a call from my parents. They expressed concerns (that I shared)  about my going home to South Korea over the upcoming spring break. At that time, Korea was experiencing hundreds of Coronavirus cases each day, with numbers continuing to rise. Despite our initial trepidation, I soon found myself bundled up at the Incheon Airport waiting for my parents to pick me up to drive home, along with my luggage, hand sanitizers, ethanol spray, and three packs of KF94 masks — including the one I was wearing.  

Spring term of my freshman year was a mess, but I felt relieved about the early decision to return to my family before strict travel restrictions ensued a couple weeks after my arrival.

Since the outset of the pandemic, I’ve been grateful for South Korea’s well-designed healthcare systems. For example, anyone, including foreigners, were reassured that they could enter the hospital and receive treatment if they tested positive for the virus. They also  quickly established systems and processes that halted the spread of COVID-19 and reversed that initial spike, including successfully stopping a recent outbreak that could have led to a resurgence.

Pros and Cons of Remote Learning

Meanwhile, the pandemic was heating up in the U.S. causing nationwide school shutdowns from March through May 2020. Now faced with learning from home unexpectedly during my spring term, I took the time to explore areas that I don’t normally have the luxury to examine due to a packed daily school schedule. I researched architectural design like the Burj Khalifal; watched Netflix movies, COSMOS, and quantum mechanic documentaries; and reached out to teach coding to students. I tried to make the best of what could be done during self-quarantine.

I took the time to explore areas that I don’t normally have the luxury to examine

However, as an international student in South Korea, I faced many difficulties during that semester. Due to the 13-hour time difference between the Eastern Standard Time (EST) operations for my school courses and Korean Standard Time (KST), I grappled with the arrangement of my schedule: Should I wake up early before dawn or should I just stay up through the night for my 4 AM class and then sleep until noon?

Should I wake up early before dawn or should I just stay up through the night for my 4 AM class and then sleep until noon?

With continual disruption to my sleep-wake cycle, and countless sleepless nights, during spring term and into summer break, I never settled into a routine, healthy sleeping pattern. Instead, I struggled through sporadic intervals of disjointed sleep and rest. When I got the chance to connect with friends from either South Korea or the U.S. over video calls, we lamented about our collective fatigue, mental stress, and interrupted sleep schedules. It was clear that many international, as well as regional U.S. students, were having similar troubles.

COVID-19 Sparks Innovation

While the COVID-19 pandemic has brought much suffering, it has also brought some pockets of hope and opportunities

While the COVID-19 pandemic has brought much suffering, it has also brought some pockets of hope and opportunities, especially in terms of  development in technology and bioengineering. Coronavirus has become a catalyst for scientific initiatives like telemedicine. Along these lines, many inspirations have stemmed from college students and fellow high schoolers who have been discovering solutions to combat the Coronavirus, such as COVID-Map and informative apps. As a problem-solver myself, I wanted to contribute too with my own knowledge about software programming and product-creation.

Together with a close friend from Korea, we designed the DreamCatcher Lab team, entered an artificial intelligence (AI) competition called POSCO 2020 AI Challenge; as participants, we began to develop a smart app and product in order to help patients with partial and chronic insomnia, and anyone having trouble getting a good night’s sleep in general. My own disrupted pattern, as well as many of my friends and schoolmates, was the impetus to search for a solution to maintaining good sleep cycles. In the span of three months, we successfully created the DreamCatcher app with pink noise music therapy, a wireless device, and a novel AI technique, called ElectroCardioGram (ECG) estimation from a PhotoPlethysmoGram (PPG) wave, to help monitor user’s sleep. Ironically it felt like I had insomnia from staying up nights debugging the program; but it was amazing to see the idea become a reality.

Trying to Make Sense of the Inconceivable

As a quantum mechanics enthusiast, I’ve learned to appreciate the unruly subatomic universe as “orderly chaos” — sensible things made up of objects that follow senseless rules. Trying to decrypt the phenomena and reach mathematical proofs, leads to one of two opposite places: either scientific properties with definitive answers or somewhere even more surreal.

The past several months have been the latter: bizarre,  unimaginable, even incomprehensible. As the pandemic and public health crisis impacts all of us globally, cyclic relapses of racial discrimination — George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, David McAtee — persist in a fundamentally-corrupt system. Asian gaslighting and violence serve as another inconceivable reminder. Add to that, burning infernos, first in Australia then across the West Coast of the U.S. like some blistering plague. The events collectively unfolding like a morbid tale or tragic playbook. Is there order to this chaos and destruction?  Worse yet, these outcomes probably won’t remain confined to the year 2020.

How Does this Relate to My School?

Following a couple weeks of online learning from Korea, my school is (at least tentatively) reopening for the start of fall term. I’ll be flying back to campus in October. Despite the degree of disaster and upheaval, I’m relieved to see changes in the school’s approach. We now have an Anti-Racist Workshop period in the weekly schedule and have regular talks and interviews about race during assembly. 

Overall, the concept of online zooming for math or even orchestra class isn’t as awkward anymore. With back-to-campus protocols, I’m curious (and a bit nervous) to learn whether the school’s meticulous planning to prevent Coronavirus outbreaks will prevail. Routine dormitory sanitizations, check-ups, food pick-ups and social distancing, meeting restrictions, 24/7 health center operations, and more comprise the plan. Upperclassmen already moved into the school dorms several weeks ago.

Honestly the precautions aren’t nearly enough to put my mind, nor my parents’ and friends’ minds, at ease.

Honestly the precautions aren’t nearly enough to put my mind, nor my parents’ and friends’ minds, at ease. The thought of an influx of hundreds more students to the campus and positive cases continuing to pop up in nearby towns worry me. 

Despite these legitimate concerns, I’m committed to trying, along with my peers, to focus my thoughts and energy on continuing to create, innovate, and solve problems. Taking my cues from visionaries, scientists, activists and classmates, I’ll thrive to make sense of the situation, and to discover solutions. Creating and inventing, like I did with the DreamCatcher, offers the possibility of practical solutions and provides a sense of hope. 

“The past is our present,” as the saying goes. Unravelling the twisted strings and determining viable solutions, from global warming to the battle against new, more-resilient viruses to centuries old and ensconced problems like racism, may sound insurmountable. But, if we’ve learned anything from this pandemic, we definitely ought to try. 

Reported by Anoushka Mahendra-Rajah
Written by Minseo Kim
Edited by Dr. Jacki Hart

A Thin Cloth Line: Debunking the Myths Surrounding Masks

The use and effectiveness of masks have been questioned by those who do not believe they are necessary – often referred to as “anti-maskers.” Some argue that masks don’t properly filter the virus and others claim that they restrict proper airflow. These positions are based on pseudo-science and have led down a divisive, if not dangerous, path to rejecting the wearing of masks. Research and analysis consistently support that use of masks slows the spread of COVID-19 and saves lives. 

One interesting way that the Center for Disease Control (CDC) recently addressed these concerns was to evaluate, and then publish a scientific report, detailing how masks and face coverings were able to contain the spread of COVID-19 for a couple of hairstylists while interacting with their clientele.

Two Symptomatic Hairstylists Avoid Spreading COVID-19 to Clients

Conducted in Springfield, Missouri, a real world experience presented an opportunity to assess whether masks successfully prevented the spread of COVID-19 from two hairstylists to 139 of their clients. Both the hairstylist and the person receiving a haircut wore masks or face coverings during the appointments. Each stylist wore double-layered cotton face masks. The hairstylists were both symptomatic while seeing these 139 clients (mean age of 52 years and all willingly seeing the stylist without knowing their COVID-19 status). Despite having some typical, yet mild, respiratory symptoms, like cough and congestion, neither hair stylist had been tested for coronavirus when they saw these particular clients. Haircut appointments lasted for an average of 19 minutes. 

Once the hairstylists learned that they tested positive for COVID-19 (after 8 days of symptoms for one of the stylists, and 5 days of symptoms for the other), they stopped seeing clients  and self-quarantined. The Greene County Health Department in Missouri contact-traced all 139 clients that were exposed to the stylists, recommended they quarantine for 14 days, and offered free testing to all. Of the nearly 50% who agreed to receive a nasopharyngeal swab test, all of them tested negative for COVID-19. 

There were also no respiratory symptoms reported by any of the 139 clients, or their secondary groups, such as family and friends following exposure to the hairstylists. The county health department was able to interview 104 of the identified clients, which allowed for supplementary data to be acquired too, such as age, duration of appointment, and type of face covering used. The only people identified who developed COVID-19 symptoms and/or tested positive for the virus were the immediate housemates of one of the hairstylists. 

Through the use of face coverings, two stylists who were both symptomatic and COVID-19 positive did not transfer the virus to their clients during their respective appointments.

This study bolsters other scientific evidence corroborating the use of face coverings, whether homemade or surgical, in slowing the spread of COVID-19. It is remarkable, and reassuring, that the use of simple face coverings prevented the transmission of the COVID-19 virus from two symptomatic hair stylists to their clients in close proximity.

This study bolsters other scientific evidence corroborating the use of face coverings, whether homemade or surgical, in slowing the spread of COVID-19.

The Data Have Been Consistent

The results of this study parallel previous observational data on the effectiveness of masks. An analysis of “194 countries… found a negative association between duration of a face mask [and other] polic[ies] and per-capita coronavirus-related mortality.” This means that the longer that a country has had a mask wearing policy, the fewer overall deaths and the lower the mortality rate in that country. In addition, countries that did not recommend face masks saw a COVID-19 related mortality rate increase of “54.3%…compared with 8.0% for countries with masking policies.”

An updated count from this same research, along with assessment of other protective measures, compared countries with mask mandates to countries without mask requirements. That gap in mortality rate expanded even further: in countries where citizens wear masks, the per capita coronavirus mortality, since the start of the pandemic, increased by almost 16% each week compared with 62% per week in countries where citizens do not wear masks. In America, this likely translates into parallel differences from state to state — where mask wearing is standard, regulated, and/or culturally accepted versus those where they are not. 

Collectively, these studies affirm that face masks effectively slow the spread of the virus and should be used as a deterrent for the current, and possibly future, pandemics. If you still have friends or family members who don’t believe or consider themselves “anti-maskers,” try sharing this video from Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) scientists called “It’s Ok to be Smart.” PBS explains why and how masks work to protect all of us. Together, we can debunk mask myths, protect one another, and curb the spread of COVID-19. 

Written by Robert Shepard
Edited by Dr. Jacki Hart

Teen Initiatives During COVID-19: Young Adults Support Their Communities

My Covid Story

As the pandemic spread, forcing schools and businesses to close in April, two teenagers in Massachusetts found themselves with time on their hands and a pressing urge to use their skills to help others. With 80% of COVID-19 infections presenting as mild or asymptomatic, masks to prevent the emission of potentially infected particles is crucial to slowing the spread of this disease. Noah Lang (high school class of 2021) and Izzy Klein (high school class of 2020 /college 2025) founded businesses and nonprofits with the aim of making masks as accessible as possible to people in their community. Lang founded the nonprofit Masks4Mass to procure and donate masks to organizations like the Boston Rescue Mission, Margaret Fuller Neighborhood House, and high schools in his area as they have been preparing to reopen. Klein started Masks By Izzy to offer deliveries and pickups of her affordable hand-sewn masks and donate proceeds to the Greater Boston Food Bank.

Recently, talked to Noah and Izzy to better understand what inspired each of them, how they remain motivated, and ways that their ventures have helped others.

Getting Started

Noah: I came up with the idea of founding this nonprofit, Masks4Mass, after I realized how difficult it was to obtain masks, especially early on in the pandemic. I was brainstorming ways that I might be able to help my community and facilitate the reopening of schools. I wanted to do something that was different and meaningful. As a result, I founded this nonprofit with the hope of ultimately contributing to halting the spread of COVID-19

Izzy: I’ve been sewing since 4th grade through after school classes with a friend. And I’ve always loved creating things, helping people, and trying to make things accessible. My background is in political and community organizing, and communications. With those things in mind, I wanted to find a way to help people right now — with the immediate crisis. Being able to produce something that gives back, that’s functional, and that’s keeping people safe at the same time that it also benefits my community was my goal.

Initial Steps

Izzy: I started sewing and the first few masks weren’t great, but I definitely had a foundation. I started giving them to family and friends, and they really liked them. I originally did an order form and I would get crazy high demand every week – like 40 orders. It was getting a little hard to keep up because I would take the orders on Monday, work on them throughout the whole week, and arrange for pickup or delivery on Saturdays. I realized that with the growth, it would be good to have a website. Now, we are in the process of making my site not only a place to buy masks but also other things made by different members of my community. In the meantime, given that college for me is now online, I decided to take a gap semester to work on this. I’m hoping to expand; right now we’re doing a lot of bigger orders for smaller businesses and for family events and stuff like that. It’s been really good and I’ve definitely enjoyed being able to meet different members of my community. 

Noah: I’m definitely planning on continuing this initiative past the summer. As long as the  pandemic continues, I want to help and try to find ways to make an impact on our community. I haven’t really set an ultimate goal because I see this as an ongoing process. My biggest goal is to get masks to schools because this is a vital aspect to reopening. If all students were able to have access to masks and personal protective equipment I think opening schools would be a lot easier. However, it’s been challenging because public schools haven’t been very responsive. I’ve been reaching out to people that I already know first: parents of some of my friends, coworkers of my mother and my father, people from my own school, etc. I’ve set up a donation page on my website. That way, even people who don’t know me personally are able to contribute to Masks4Mass. 

Growing Process & Pains

Izzy: Seeing people wearing their masks definitely makes me super happy. It’s a lot of young families who have been telling me that the masks that we make are really affordable. A lot of people who placed orders when the idea was just being formed said things like, “You know, your mask is the only mask my kids will wear because your kid size fits so well.” That is super awesome and gratifying to hear because I know it’s really hard to work with younger children on this. A lot of wonderful friends from school have been delivering masks for me as well, so I can spend more time sewing. I have received help with cutting fabric and taking orders from different YMCA’s. It’s gratifying to have  a lot of friends and family helping out.  

Noah: One of the greatest challenges with this learning process is that it’s the first time that I’ve ever formed a nonprofit. I had  to learn how to incorporate my nonprofit with the Commonwealth of Mass. Also, in order to receive tax exempt status from the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) I needed to research and learn how that  works. A smaller-scale challenge has been, again, that public schools have been significantly less responsive than private schools, which is somewhat frustrating. But I’m continuing to try to work my way around that. I’m guessing it’s because they have additional regulations. Another obstacle I’ve had is that some of the masks [we’ve secured have been] pretty low quality. They don’t really seal or fit your face well which allows for openings around the sides of the masks. That kind-of defeats the purpose of the mask, of course. Others are just bad quality in general and that’s something I have to work my way around, too. I have been buying a sample batch of masks before making a bulk purchase. That seems to help  solve the quality control problem.

I have been buying a sample batch of masks before making a bulk purchase. That seems to help solve the quality control problem.

Lessons Learned

Noah: I think one of the things that is extremely important to me and a main takeaway is the importance of community and the willingness to help others. Prior to this, a lot of the work I had done for my community was with my school; this has felt different because it was organic and not a requirement. I think that’s something that I’m trying to tap into — sympathizing with others and willingly helping them out. This organization has helped me solidify that mindset. As a personal thing, the formation of this nonprofit has taught me a lot about the process of how you incorporate a non-profit into the Commonwealth, and the different steps that you need to take in order to have a legal nonprofit and get tax-exempt status. Another aspect that has also been interesting is accounting. Over the past couple months, I’ve done a lot of accounting because of the fundraising. It seems likely that I’ll use many of these skills later on in my life and it’s [an interesting opportunity] to start learning them now. Overall, I think that running this nonprofit is not only a great way to support my community. It has also taught me a lot about nonprofits in general and the importance of taking an initiative to help others.

Izzy: We’ve never really lived through a time like this in recent modern history. So, I think it’s super important to make sure that we are being intentional about helping others. I feel very privileged – which is not necessarily a great feeling – but I think it also gives me this kind of responsibility to give back, because I have the resources to be able to do that. It’s time to just make sure that we are all being mindful with our choices and with our actions. If you are in a position where you’re comfortable right now, and you don’t really have that much worry in your life, start thinking about ways that you can give back. Whether it’s helping at a shelter or food pantry, or donating somewhere, we need to make sure that we are constantly asking ourselves: What are small things that we can do that, in turn, will have a positive effect on society?

Reported by Anoushka Mahendra-Rajah
Edited by Dr. Jacki Hart

White House Touts Old Therapy for New Virus

Convalescent plasma (CP) is not a new therapy, but it’s gotten new attention. For illness that has progressed to respiratory distress, physicians in hospitals have prescribed convalescent plasma for COVID-19 patients, along with other treatments like steroids and antiviral medications that are generally well established for this clinical scenario from similar infectious agents. Because of both theoretical benefit and observational success, studies have begun to emerge about the application of convalescent plasma for COVID-19 specifically. With early encouraging results suggesting improved survival rates for tens of thousands of individuals, the White House administration urged the United States (U.S.) Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to establish emergency use authorization (EUA). Despite the preliminary success, this move remains controversial because the usual degree of research scrutiny has not been applied to convalescent plasma for COVID-19. Studies are ongoing.

Proponents say convalescent plasma has been around for a long time for similar purposes, what could be the harm? (Well – think hydroxychloroquine…) Skeptics say the move is premature. The middle ground would have been to continue in the previous capacity of FDA investigational (also called compassionate) use. That allows doctors to make informed clinical decisions to use CP when the patients’ circumstances warrant, with documentation and agreement that the patient is aware of the experimental nature of the therapy, and with meticulous tracking of many details that would become clinically relevant and inform well-substantiated application of the treatment as we move forward. 

Now, some experts worry that the EUA might jeopardize research. Having the medication readily available for this purpose may translate to fewer people enrolling in studies since doctors can obtain the drug for patients without requesting the added demands of participating in a clinical trial. Given the positive publicity about convalescent plasma, patients may not take the chance of being assigned to a placebo group and, thus, not receive the therapy. The EUA may also lead to diminished tracking which helps delineate important details regarding the treatment, like dosing and timing of administration as well as potential risks, side effects, and negative reactions.

How does Convalescent Plasma Work?

The idea of convalescent plasma is to gather blood from patients who have recovered from the infection and, thus, developed antibodies that might confer immunity to someone who currently has the illness. In theory, the antibody-rich blood product should help patients recover faster from COVID-19. Since there is no confirmed effective treatment for COVID-19, the idea of boosting patients’ immune response to the virus seems worthwhile.

The therapy has been around since early in the 20th century and has been used successfully for other viruses, including hepatitis, mumps, measles, rabies, polio, and the 1918 influenza pandemic. More recently, it’s even been used for H1N1 flu, Ebola, and previous coronavirus outbreaks like Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome -1 (SARS-1) and Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome (MERS). However, it remains unclear whether convalescent plasma adds benefit to standard treatment. The way to determine this involves studies using a rigorous design known as randomized controlled clinical trials (RCTs) for hospitalized patients with COVID-19.

Without such scientific analysis, many questions remain unresolved about the proper way to administer the therapy

Without such scientific analysis, many questions remain unresolved about the proper way to administer the therapy – including exactly who will benefit, at what stage of the COVID-19 infection, and what dose confers protection. 

Data from Chinese researchers suggests benefits like xray resolution of lung infections from COVID-19, a reduced viral load, and improved survival. However, the data is extremely limited, including that that study was discontinued due to low rates of enrollment and lack of added clinical benefit from convalescent plasma. There are several assessments going on currently in the U.S., including through the University of North Carolina (UNC) and an expanded (again, called compassionate) use program led by the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota. The latter is from where much of the information about CP use in COVID-19 patients has been derived to date. 

In the meantime, under what appears to be possible pressure from the White House Administration, and against the advice of some prominent experts, the FDA issued the EUA on August 23rd, 2020 for convalescent plasma. 

Given the change in FDA status, there has been a surging interest from hospitals continuing to struggle with high numbers of people with COVID-19. This has translated to accelerated demand for convalescent plasma. Blood banks around the country are shipping CP to states like Florida, Texas, Tennessee, Mississippi, Missouri, and California. Organizations leading these efforts include the Red Cross and America’s Blood Centers.

If you’ve recovered from coronavirus and test positive for COVID-19 antibodies, you might be eligible to donate convalescent plasma; the FDA explains.

If you’ve recovered from coronavirus and test positive for COVID-19 antibodies, you might be eligible to donate convalescent plasma; the FDA explains. Even one donor can benefit three to four patients with matching blood types. 

Written By Rohan Prabhu & Jacki Hart, MD

Lifelong Dream and Art Store Nearly Destroyed by Pandemic

My Covid Story:

In the writing of Margaret’s story, Congress continues to debate another much needed round of government support. The House passed a second Coronavirus, Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act in mid-May. The Senate response as of September 9, 2020 is for a much lower amount. Negotiations persist.

Lifelong Dream and Art Store Nearly Destroyed by Pandemic

Even for those who have not contracted the virus, the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted all of us profoundly. Seeing friends and family is a challenge; attending school via zoom or a hybrid model is awkward and draining; travel is non-existent; and so much more. For many, the sacrifices have been life altering. Take Margaret, for example, the sole owner of an art store one hour outside of Philadelphia. Phoenix Art Supplies and Framing has been Margaret’s pride and only source of income for 12 years. 

Like many other small business owners, Margaret’s routine and livelihood were abruptly turned upside down as Pennsylvania and much of the United States (U.S.) shut down all non-essential businesses. To label the dream business that Margaret built “non-essential” seemed understandable but felt heartbreaking. Aren’t our politicians always talking about small business as “the backbone of America?”

But, worst of all, closing her store meant that Margaret had no income for the foreseeable future. The fear and uncertainty felt unbearable.

"The first thing I did was apply for every loan I could find"

“The first thing I did was apply for every loan I could find,” Margaret explained since she needed to pay her employees and find money to support herself and her storefront, including rent and utilities (at least she assumed at that time). The two main sources available were the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loan and the Economic Injury Disaster Loan, both of which were passed as part of the large stimulus package, known as the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act provided by U.S. Congress in response to the unprecedented pandemic, and administered by the Small Business Association (SBA).

“Poster Child” for PPP, But Process Failed Margaret

PPP is a forgivable loan if business owners follow a certain set of regulations, the main one being that they continue to pay their employees. The bipartisan Bill approved an initial $350 billion for the loans, which was quickly expended. Then, an additional $310 billion was approved for a second wave of applications. Businesses with fewer than 500 employees qualified for the loan and each business could receive up to $10 million; applications were submitted to the business’s local bank and then processed by the SBA. 

Margaret completed her PPP application within hours of its online availability to the public. Her business checked all of the necessary boxes; her store is even woman-owned, which was supposed to take priority. Yet, for nearly four months, her application read as “processing” by the SBA. “It was unbelievable watching people get [the PPP loan] and me waiting for three and a half to four months with no news. My business was the poster child for that loan!” Margaret exclaimed. She felt bewildered by the delay and the lack of communication. 

And Margaret was not alone. Reports in May revealed that 38.1% of small businesses never received any assistance from the PPP, despite meeting all federal requirements. While Margaret understands that setbacks and delays are likely with the sudden rollout of such a large stimulus program, it was infuriating that the process wasn’t smoother and easier. Margaret, her few employees, and hundreds of thousands of small businesses like hers were relying on this package to survive. Margaret felt let down by the government.

Margaret, her few employees, and hundreds of thousands of small businesses like hers were relying on this package to survive

Creating Ways to Survive

Scared and still waiting for the PPP loan, Margaret harnessed her small business acumen and ingenuity to scramble together an online presence. This has allowed her customers to purchase items from the website and pick up curbside from the storefront. Unfortunately, without the PPP loan Margaret had to let go of two employees. She was super sad about this loss and disappointment. She hated letting them down, especially at a time when work is very hard to secure. Not receiving that PPP in a timely fashion led to a domino effect for Margaret, her employees, and their respective families. 

The online presence helped pull in some revenue. But Margaret could not fully support the business or herself with curbside pickup alone. About one month into lockdown, with still no responses from the SBA about the PPP or Economic Disaster loans, she created a GoFundMe page. Margaret had initially asked for $3,000 on GoFundMe, a fundraising platform for anybody who wants to start a page with a 2.9% fee. She was astonished to receive nearly $9,000 in donations – three times her initial ask! “It was really moving because it was all local people and my community pulling through for me,” Margaret remarked. Margaret feels immense gratitude to her community; they supported her and helped carry her small business through this dire time. Without them, Margaret believes that she would have been lost.

It was really moving because it was all local people and my community pulling through for me,

Loans Finally Come Through, But Complications Persist

Almost all of Margaret’s funding came from her GoFundMe page until nearly four months into the pandemic. Then, she finally received a notice from the SBA saying she was approved via the Economic Injury Disaster Loan that would provide $10,000. Margaret accepted the loan because her store was still not able to open. Five days later, she received another notification of an additional county grant for $10,000. Unfortunately, Margaret’s sense of relief was short-lived as the SBA informed her that she could only accept one of the two offers. Since the Economic Injury Disaster loan would mean she would eventually have to pay back the $10,000, Margaret tried to return that loan and take the $10,000 grant. That attempt has been a futile fiasco. “I’ve tried to call and email and I cannot reach anybody at SBA. It’s awful because I am basically losing $10,000,” Margaret said in exasperation. 

Several more months have passed by and Margaret has still not heard back from the SBA; therefore, she’s been unable to accept the grant and return the loan. As of early July, her store was allowed to reopen with many precautions taken to protect herself, her remaining employees, and her customers. She is very thankful that her community continues to support her shop through this intensely difficult time. But Margaret (like millions of others) is well aware of the chance for another shutdown. She continues to try to foster ways to transition her business to a greater online presence. When asked about the future, Margaret said she remains extremely worried, but will continue to maintain her curbside pickup and has set up a process for remote framing options. 

We are grateful to Margaret for sharing her story. The difficulty she’s experienced and her struggle to adapt her small, independent business is relatable by millions of Americans. Supporting local businesses like Phoenix Art Supplies and Framing is critical at this time. Do you have a story to tell about how the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted you? Share with our team and we may contact you for further details.

Written & Reported by Katarina Ho
Edited by Dr. Jacki Hart

Controlling Coronavirus in Tight Living Quarters

My Covid Story

Facilities with people living in close quarters are at high risk of spreading infection rapidly to one another, including COVID-19. Nursing homes, prisons, shelters, and dormitories share the feature of close proximity and, therefore, rapid risk of spread. Nursing homes and prisons have the added risks of older residents and a disproportionate percentage of minorities, respectively. One family shelter in Iowa shares their protocols that allowed them to keep the current coronavirus at bay in their facility until very recently. While factors differ between the types of institutions mentioned, sharing ideas of how to protect residents can translate to helpful lessons for each setting.

Controlling Coronavirus in Tight Living Quarters

Since early March, COVID-19 has relentlessly infiltrated thousands of nursing homes, homeless shelters, prisons, and other tight-knit facilities across the United States (U.S.). The impact of the virus on these and other vulnerable populations has been overwhelming. In the state of Massachusetts, for example, the Department of Health noted that 384 out of roughly 400 long-term-care facilities in the state had been affected, resulting in more than 4,100 deaths.  A similar story of infection and death has played out in other parts of the country as well. Although organizations such as the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS), have released a series of guidelines aimed to reduce the impact of COVID-19 on long-term care facilities, many institutions continue to struggle. The media has focused heavily on the large number of facilities with rampant spread and poor outcomes from the virus. But an equally important question is: how have a small number of facilities managed to keep the deadly virus out?

But an equally important question is: how have a small number of facilities managed to keep the deadly virus out?

Jaymes Sime serves as Executive Director (ED) of MICAH House, “a homeless shelter with two priority populations: families… and single women,” based in Council Bluffs, Iowa that had managed to remain COVID-free until late July. At the time of our conversation, Sime reported that they had not had a single case of COVID-19. When discussing their strategy for keeping MICAH House safe, Sime details three main areas of focus that contribute to that success: Design, Timing, and Communication.

Design: As Sime described, many shelters for people experiencing homelessness share a large open bunkhouse and/or common spaces for mealtimes, restroom facilities, and, at times, waiting lines for programs or services offered by the facility. Sime explains how that set up is “not conducive for [controlling] any type of virus,” not to mention the lack of privacy and dignity. 

MICAH House offers a different structure. Although some rooms in the shelter are shared, five-foot dividers between each bed help maintain discretion while also limiting the transmission of illness among residents. Additionally, the number of women allowed in the facility was reduced by 20% at the start of the pandemic, providing spare, private rooms for residents awaiting test results.

Timing: The second part of Sime’s formula for the success at MICAH House revolves around timing. As soon as Jaymes and his team learned of COVID-19, they rallied into action. In early March, a plan to control the virus was set in motion. An eight-page document was written and circulated to outline “internal protocols, [discussion of] social distancing, isolation, and quarantine.” Sime also created a short video for those who process information differently. 

Shortly thereafter, masks were issued to clients and staff, with staff setting the example by wearing masks throughout the day. In addition, stations were set up with hand sanitizers and thermometers. According to Jaymes, the practices and procedures are continuously reviewed and reinforced in a variety of ways, ensuring that both staff and clients appreciate the significance of the situation, including the virulence of the contagion, the ease and rapidity of its spread, and the importance of caring for and respecting one another. Sime believes that the swift call to action played a critical role in keeping COVID-19 at bay. Both the seriousness and the clarity of measures taken left no doubt for those living or working at MICAH House.

Sime believes that the swift call to action played a critical role in keeping COVID-19 at bay.

Communication: The MICAH house approach has prioritized both internal and external communication. Within the shelter, Sime consistently reiterates key messages to staff members and emphasizes the importance of open communication up and down the chain of command; this way, matters that arise can be quickly and easily addressed.

The culture of extra discussions and check-ins took some adjustment, patience, and understanding on the part of the staff.

The culture of extra discussions and check-ins took some adjustment, patience, and understanding on the part of the staff. For example, back in March, a woman in the shelter showed potential symptoms but felt reluctant, and nervous, to take a test. The staff member informed an on-call supervisor who addressed the situation but failed to immediately communicate the client’s concerns to ED Sime and others on the team. Luckily, the woman ultimately agreed and tested negative; but from that point on, Sime underscored that erring on the side of too much communication (rather than too little) was vital. He informed the staff that when issues arise, “…whatever the time. I need to be in the know.” That way he can make sure that the situation is managed as safely and effectively as possible, protecting all of the residents and staff, and minimizing viral exposure and spread.

Communication with shelters near MICAH House has also been extremely important in helping to curb the impact of COVID-19. The EDs of the five shelters within that same area hold weekly video meetings. This allows local leaders to gauge the risk by knowing the regional data and facilitates learning by each shelter from the actions of others. To date, three of the five organizations have needed to manage cases of COVID-19. Sharing and following best practices has helped ensure prompt action and less severe outcomes than have happened at many other facilities across America. According to Jaymes, “without that collaboration and without the ability to learn from a shelter that actively managed having their whole shelter tested multiple times… we would still be somewhat blinded.” Essentially, these weekly sessions provide Sime and his colleagues with ideas that he weaves into his work with the MICAH House team. 

Internal and external communication complement one another.

Lessons Learned: 

While many long-term-care facilities and shelters around the U.S. have struggled to contain COVID-19 cases and complications, some places like MICAH House have managed to keep the virus out or at least the numbers down to a minimum. Diligence, attention to details, timely response, clear and frequent communication, and sharing of best practices form the components to improve pandemic management, now and in the future.

Written & Reported by Ella Gavin
Edited by Dr. Jacki Hart