The COVID-19 pandemic has transformed nearly every part of Harvard — perhaps nowhere more than Harvard Medical School and its affiliated hospitals and research institutions.
Harvard Medical School Dean George Q. Daley ’82 said in an interview Friday that the school devoted nearly all its resources to fighting COVID-19 this spring.
“The Harvard Medical System has evolved and innovated in remarkable ways to confront the COVID pandemic,” Daley said. “We came through this really challenging wave in the April, May, June time frame, where the hospitals reoriented, almost entirely, all of their medical services to care for the onslaught of COVID patients.”
The hospitals managed to reestablish most routine clinical care during the summer months, when case counts were well-contained in Massachusetts, Daley said. Harvard is affiliated with 19 hospitals and research institutes in the Boston area, including Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, Brigham and Women's Hospital, and Massachusetts General Hospital.
In the recent weeks, however, those hospitals, like the rest of the United States, have experienced an uptick in cases.
Healthcare workers now have more experience handling COVID-19 cases after the first wave in late spring, but Daley said the virus remains a “threat.” With the rising numbers, he said regular mask-wearing, social and physical distancing, hand hygiene, and getting a flu vaccination remain key steps.
“What we've learned from the flu season in the southern hemisphere, which we've just come through, is that because of the public health measures in place to protect against COVID, there has fortunately been a mild flu season,” Daley said. “Yet, there are reports of individuals who are doubly infected with flu and COVID, who can develop very severe complications.”
Daley said faculty, researchers, and clinicians at Harvard Medical School and its affiliated hospitals have played a major role nationally and internationally in fighting the virus, including establishing best practices for managing patients.
“Some of the leaders of our infectious disease community have served on the expert panels at the National Institutes of Health and the Infectious Diseases Society of America to establish the guidelines for clinical care,” Daley said.
“Because of improvements in clinical care, recognition of the inflammatory storm, recognition of the blood clotting complications, our patients who get into the hospital with severe disease are doing better and the fatality rates are dropping,” he added.
Daley said scientists and physicians at Harvard Medical School have also engaged in fruitful collaborations with local and international colleagues, including developing two candidate vaccines currently undergoing clinical trials.
A $115 million partnership with the Guangzhou Institute for Respiratory Diseases — a Chinese research institute — funded by Fortune Global 500 company China Evergrande Group has expanded in the last six months to include researchers from other Massachusetts medical schools, local biotechnology and pharmaceutical companies, and several other nations.
“We have had now several global public briefings, where we've talked about critical elements of the virus and the disease, where we've had talks from Guangzhou colleagues, colleagues in Italy, colleagues in Africa,” Daley said. “That has really highlighted the international nature of the cooperation and shared communication that has taught us all how to better confront the virus.”
Still, the threat of COVID-19 will not subside until populations achieve herd immunity or a vaccine is available to the public, though the former is increasingly unlikely, Daley said.
“Unfortunately, still, even in communities that have been ravaged by COVID, anywhere from 60 to 90 percent of those communities remain susceptible because they haven't seen the virus and they have no degree of immunity,” Daley said. “We're not going to be through this until we have a vaccine.”
The expertise of doctors and researchers at the Medical School has placed a “responsibility” on affiliates to communicate and keep the public informed, he said.
“I'm proud to say Harvard has been a voice of reason at a time when there's been a lot of chaotic communication,” Daley said. “I hope that means that in the future, our students, whether they're in medical school or graduate school, appreciate that part of their responsibility as doctors, scientists, clinicians, is to learn how to communicate with the public.”
—Staff writer Virginia L. Ma can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.