There have been more than 184,000 infections in our region as of Tuesday since the outbreak hit. At least 6,000 people have died — a disproportionate number of them have been African American.
“I have some good news,” said Melissa Clarke, a Harvard-educated population health expert. “In D.C., Maryland and Virginia, we are among a handful of states seeing a decline in deaths. We still have plenty of hospital beds available. And in D.C., the transmission rate is less than 1 percent, which means the virus can die out.”
But even as Clarke was speaking last week, area governments were announcing that infections were on the rise again after seeming to have plateaued. The development was so startling that D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) ordered masks be worn outdoors by everyone.
She then mandated a 14-day quarantine for anyone returning to the nation’s capital from “nonessential” travel to a known hot spot.
“We just have to remain vigilant,” Clarke said.
Jennifer Nuzzo, an epidemiologist at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, spoke about how the development of a vaccine was coming along, and she complimented the researchers.
“I think they are doing a remarkable job with the science to pick the vaccine that will work and be safe,” she said.
However, Nuzzo said, because of production and distribution challenges, there may not be enough vaccine for everybody at the start.
“And so there will be huge issues about how we allocate it and who will get it first,” she said.
The Zoom meeting was organized by Rosalind Parker, founder of the D.C.-based nonprofit group Bridging Resources in Communities. She also runs a D.C.-funded drug-prevention center that covers Wards 7 and 8 — the areas of the city that also have the largest number of people in poverty.
In a contest between society’s haves and have nots over a potentially lifesaving vaccine, Parker’s clientele would probably not be the odds-on favorite to win. Nevertheless, she hoped the experts could provide whatever virus-prevention strategies and mental-health wellness and coping techniques that might give them a fighting chance.
They tried their best to oblige.
Clarke noted that help for the needy was available through the Leadership Council on Healthy Communities, an organization composed of more than 70 faith-based institutions. Their virtual health ministry had a call center staffed by outreach workers from four churches that could help needy residents get risk assessments for the coronavirus and mental-health issues.
Bruce Purnell, a mental-health and trauma expert, offered a positive-attitude exercise: a way to make the most of being quarantined.
“We’re calling this moment a ‘cocooning,’ ” he said. “Like being in a cocoon, going inside of ourselves and working on ourselves so we can show up in a different way. If we can release anxiety and identify our divine gifts and activate them, tomorrow can be the first day of the best days of your life if we can release the pain of the past.”
Such meditative efforts might calm the minds of some caregivers. But many of those being cared for had more substantive needs.
Nuzzo said that opening schools would also be a huge help — if and when that could be done safely.
“From an epidemiological perspective, looking at the experiences of other countries, if we were able to get a better handle on our epidemic here in the greater D.C. area, I think it would be possible to safely open schools,” Nuzzo said. “There are lot of creative solutions that other countries have used.”
Other countries such as South Korea and Germany. Not this one.
For the poorest children, Nuzzo noted, schools were not only the best place to get an education but also the primary source of health care and nutrition.
“I’m a parent and I really worry about my kids,” said Nuzzo, who lives in Anne Arundel County, where public schools are closed for in-person learning through January.
“But my kids are lucky,” she continued. “We have resources in our family, and I know that a number of other families with resources are hiring tutors. They are hiring teachers, and many of them are coming from the [closed] school district. So, they are creating a parallel education system and not every child will have access to that.
“One of the deep concerns about the loss of learning is how that will exacerbate existing inequities and the achievement gap,” she added. “This is a real problem that I don’t feel we have sufficient solutions for.”
Edwin Chapman, a physician specializing in addiction medicine, told the audience that decisions about who gets treatment, as well as who gets an education, were being made even before the pandemic.
“The problem of racial disparities goes back 400 years, to the arrival of the first slaves,” he said. And now, because of the coronavirus, he said, as many as 250,000 people in the D.C. area, black and white, are at risk of losing their homes and apartments to eviction, with many more subject to food insecurity because of loss of income.
“I saw a survey that showed the nation’s 50 wealthiest billionaires had donated about 0.1 percent of their combined wealth to help out during this pandemic,” Chapman said. “That’s not a lot. What covid-19 has done is put us in search of the soul of America.
“Are we going to share the wealth?” he asked. “Or sit back and watch people die?”
The ray of hope was flickering.
To read previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/milloy.