Dec 3, 2020
When she was just 8 years old, Dr. Saskia Popescu’s step-mother handed her a copy of The Hot Zone: The Terrifying True Story of the Origins of the Ebola Virus. That simple act kicked off a string of events that would positively impact thousands of lives. At TIPS, we believe that one person can make a difference and everyone should try. Sometimes that person becomes a renowned infectious diseases epidemiologist and infection preventionist who specializes in biopreparedness, biosecurity, and pandemic response, and guides hospitals and businesses safely through a pandemic, like Dr. Popescu. Other times they make a difference simply by opening the mind of a child to the great possibilities of the world. Both matter.
What’s it really like on the front-lines of healthcare?
Dr. Popescu was on the front-lines as an infection preventionist long before the COVID-19 pandemic. And she, like many in the healthcare industry, was already running beyond capacity. Infection Prevention efforts are notoriously under-funded and under-prioritized by hospitals. Dr. Popescu tells us that she’s “never seen a fully staffed infection prevention department.” Similarly, doctors and nurses were already struggling with an epidemic of clinician burnout. To truly understand the context of what it’s like out there, we must remember that everything our front-line workers are dealing with now is in addition to that existing burden. Dr. Popescu tells us how this feels, how she and her colleagues are dealing with it, and how their hospitals can help. The need, Dr. Popescu tells us, goes way beyond providing access to personal protective equipment (PPE). Some hospitals are smartly supporting their staff with child care, mental health support, meal delivery, and other non-work-related services that go a long way towards helping their teams cope with the pressure.
The challenges of scientific communication
Dr. Popescu has been recognized for her communication efforts around the pandemic. In her view, the U.S. has struggled to translate nuanced CDC guidance into actual application, especially when working with people unfamiliar with the science. This is particularly true when dealing with the public. Dr. Popescu shares a few lessons learned through this experience that can and should be improved upon going forward.
We also get into the need to account for politics in future communications efforts and much more. Surely, the communications lessons of the COVID-19 pandemic will be dissected for years to come.
Dr. Popescu also takes us through comparative lessons from past pandemics. The lessons we’re learning today can and should be combined with those past experiences to make our next response that much more effective. We can even look to the experiences of dominant nation-states of the past like Rome. The fall of Rome is a complex topic with many factors, but infectious disease certainly contributed to its demise. Dr. Popescu tells us that “disease has a big impact on critical infrastructure and can be very destabilizing”. That is evident today, and we’d be wise not to ignore the challenges that followed these events of the past.
The Path Forward
The bulk of our efforts today should be focused on saving lives, supporting healthcare workers, distributing vaccines, and ending this pandemic. However, it’s never too early to begin extracting our lessons and planning for the future. Coming out of this, Dr. Popescu says, “I hope that from the top-down, from the bottom-up, we all are much more cognizant of global health security.” That means looking not just at infection control, but antimicrobial resistance testing, lab capacity, healthcare worker capacity, and more. And this can’t be a fleeting interest where we throw a bunch of money at the problem and think we’re handling it. Instead, we need a sustained, methodical approach with clear metrics for success.
This is a wonderfully thoughtful and thorough discussion on one of the most important topics of our time. I hope you get as much out of it as we did.
Dr. Saskia Popescu
Saskia Popescu is an infectious disease epidemiologist and Senior Infection Preventionist in Phoenix, Arizona. She holds academic appointments at the University of Arizona and George Mason University, where she lectures on biopreparedness, and pandemic and outbreak response. Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, she’s worked to prepare for and mitigate the spread of the disease. She has been recognized for her communication efforts around the pandemic, as well as her work on the front lines.
Dr. Popescu holds a PhD in Biodefense from George Mason University, a Masters in Public Health with a focus on infectious diseases, and a Masters of Arts in International Security Studies, from the University of Arizona.
Dr. Popescu is an Alumni Fellow of the Emerging Leaders in Biosecurity Initiative (ELBI) at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, Center for Health Security.
She currently serves as a member of the Federation of American Scientists (FAS) Coronavirus Taskforce and is a member of the Committee on Data Needs to Monitor Evolution of SARS-CoV-2 within the Health and Medicine Division of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM).
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