Entering the Second Year of the Pandemic

Published by David B. Roth, MD, PhD, on March 03, 2021

March 3, 2021 Update from the Chair

Dear Members of the Pathology and Laboratory Medicine Community,

It may not feel right to call this an anniversary, but it's been just about one full year since the pandemic turned our lives upside down. I remember the moment we began monitoring the situation in January of 2020 and I vividly recall the intense discussions we had in our healthcare circles about whether and how COVID-19 would arrive in our midst. As we had feared, we were not spared. All of us have suffered and many, far too many of us, have lost friends, colleagues, or loved ones to the virus. The death toll here and around the world is unimaginable.

At this time last year, I took comfort in the fact that the overarching strength of Penn is its sense of community and collaboration. I was then—as I am now—confident that this strength would serve us well through challenging times. And serve us it did.

If there is one thing this crisis has made clear, it is that a key component in our fight against the virus is testing, testing, and more testing, along with test technology, vaccine, and treatment development. I am awed, inspired, and beyond proud by your willingness and dedication to be part of the frontlines against the disease. Thanks to all of your tireless efforts, we have tested nearly 400,000 Penn Medicine patients in our region alone since the pandemic began. We could not have done it without you!

My sincere thanks to all of you—those of you who are involved in coronavirus testing, those of you who are doing all the other clinical diagnostics required to keep our health system going, and those of you who have overcome many obstacles to keep your research programs going.

To call all of these efforts Herculean may be an understatement. Let us pause to consider just a few accomplishments we have achieved recently:

We have received approval to open the molecular lab at Penn Medicine Rittenhouse this month. This lab will handle 4,000-5,000 samples of saliva-based testing for COVID-19 daily. In its second phase, the lab will also offer nasal swab-based testing.

We rolled out "Project Quaker" to provide 40,000 saliva-based tests for the entire University community each week.

We partnered with the West Philadelphia Skills Initiative (WPSI), a University City District workforce development program, to hire 50 new lab assistants and we plan on developing long-term careers for them within the health system, long after the pandemic is over.

It may be a while, though, until we get there. In fact, World Health Organization (WHO) officials have stated that it is unlikely the pandemic will be stopped by the end of this year. And the University does not anticipate a full return to work on campus before July 2021, at the earliest.

While I think we have responded creatively and productively to the challenges of a remote or hybrid workplace, I do miss the sense of connectedness that we enjoy in our daily office or lab environments. And yet: another important thing to come out of this crisis is the way it has brought members of our Department closer together in new and unexpected ways.

Among them were the video Town Halls we have been holding regularly. I am always happy to see how many of you are able to attend these virtual events. They are a good opportunity for us to come together from so many different areas of the department. Because of this, I would like to continue this practice: our Department Town Halls will now be held on the 2nd Friday of each month at 1:00 PM until December 2021.

All of these accomplishments should not detract from the hard sacrifices many of us were forced to make. For many, the pandemic has led to mental health declines, increased work demands, and feelings of loneliness.  

Although we have definitely entered a new phase with the vaccination roll-out, I encourage all of you to acknowledge and demonstrate empathy for those around you—as well as for yourself. And, as a reminder, PennCOBALT offers sessions to discuss strategies for self-care and maintaining resilience during these stressful times.

For more than a year now, many of us have been pushed outside of our comfort zones. Some of us continue to make  heroic efforts on behalf of others. Please be sure to spend some time taking care of yourselves. Remember: this is still a marathon, not a sprint—so even in the face of all the change and the various pressures, we need to find a way to pace ourselves.

David Roth
Chair, Pathology & Laboratory Medicine

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in these blog columns are those of the authors or other attributed individuals and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Department, Penn Medicine, or the University of Pennsylvania. Health information is provided for educational purposes and should not be used as a source of medical advice or diagnosis.