Frontline workers and those most at-risk of developing coronavirus complications could see an approved vaccine by December, but mask wearing likely will continue as the norm well into the third quarter of 2021, immunologist Dr. Anthony Fauci told staff in an interview with Greater Baltimore Medical Center.
With some coronavirus vaccines now in the third phase of trial testing and with Maryland teetering on the edge of an acceptable seven-day positivity rate, according to Johns Hopkins University’s calculation, Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, offered some updates on what Americans can expect heading into next year in an in-house interview with Dr. John Chessare, president of the Towson hospital.
The interview coincided with GBMC’s celebration of its 55th anniversary.
The availability of an effective, Food and Drug Administration-approved vaccine will not be enough to weed out the novel virus alone, especially given that Americans are evenly split over whether or not they would even take a vaccine, Fauci said.
Chessare, who took over as GBMC’s president in 2010, said the hospital was “a little bit lucky” in snagging an interview with Fauci — through a GBMC health professional’s friendship with one of Fauci’s work associates.
“I think Dr. Fauci was enticed by the fact that we were a community-based system of care,” Chessare said. “He learned that since March we had been educating the community [on the virus].”
During the interview, Fauci re-emphasized the importance of wearing a mask. “Assuming [that], as soon as a vaccine is on the market, everyone can do what they want to do … [that] would be very dangerous,” he said.
Chessare in the 30-minute interview, recorded before President Donald Trump’s coronavirus diagnosis was known, asked Fauci to weigh in on several other timely issues, including in-person learning and his expectations for the flu season.
It would make sense, the renowned infectious diseases expert advised, for schools to reopen for in-person classes on a school district-by-district basis, depending on the infection rate in that area.
He did not provide specific benchmarks on what those infection rates should be; the Maryland State Department of Education has said if a county’s testing positivity rate is greater than 5% and the number of new cases is 5 to 15 per 100,000 population, a school district can choose to hold some in-person classes or instead allow only online instruction.
But in a bit of good news, somewhat scarce these days, Fauci said he is hopeful that this flu season will be better than in prior years, given coronavirus mask-wearing and social-distancing efforts.
In a year when public health officials have been in the spotlight more than ever, it’s fitting that GBMC would choose to celebrate its 55th anniversary this month recording an interview with one of the leading voices on the White House coronavirus task force.
Health officials are “usually behind the scenes issuing guidance, not out doing press conferences,” said Molly Hyde, an infection control practitioner at the Greater Baltimore Medical Center.
The interview with Fauci coincides with a role GBMC, which touts itself as a small, community-focused hospital system, has stepped into amid the uncertainty of the pandemic and ever-changing federal and state guidance on how to best mitigate it.
“The community was desperate for a basic education about what was actually happening, free from the need to sensationalize anything,” Chessare said.
Chessare said the hospital system and its primary care providers have adjusted to address the needs of the localities it serves.
When Baltimore’s MedStar Franklin Square hospital in 2018 closed its pediatric emergency room and ended its child-abuse program, GBMC sped up its creation of a Child Protection Team, a multidisciplinary team that responds to suspected child abuse and neglect, Chessare said.
And earlier this year, the hospital opened a new unit to examine and interview victims of sexual violence in response to a growing number of patients who are victims of intimate partner violence, sexual assault and human trafficking in the area; it’s the first unit of its kind in Baltimore County.
“Our goal … is to bring health, healing and hope, and to treat everybody the way we want to be treated,” Chessare said.
The need for local public health education became apparent during the pandemic, he said.
And Hyde, who joined the Towson-based hospital system one year ago, has become a familiar face on local cable news broadcasts and GBMC-produced online videos keeping viewers up to date on the most recently available guidance — not an easy task, she noted, given the ever-changing federal guidance.
Chessare, for his part, provides monthly updates to the greater Baltimore area in videos posted to GBMC’s website, and the hospital has hosted several virtual town halls on coronavirus-related issues.
The hospital system has balanced treating coronavirus patients, which Hyde said numbered around 25 new patients admitted daily at the virus’ peak in April to fewer than 10 patients now on any given day, with a concerted public outreach effort that seeks to give the Towson community answers to myriad questions about the novel virus, such as the effectiveness of neck gaiters in lieu of masks or, recently, outlining the differences between coronavirus and flu symptoms.
But the kind of grassroots education the hospital system is undertaking is made difficult by gaps in what federal health officials are advising, Hyde said.
Health care workers at some hospital systems, like GBMC, have had to draft their own guidance in some cases — when to get tested, for instance, after potential exposure, a question Hyde says is asked frequently; she recommends waiting five days, a typical viral incubation time.
“From the standpoint of GBMC, we are a community hospital; we’re not like Johns Hopkins University, [which can tend to focus] on big picture research," Hyde said. “One really big benefit to being a small community hospital is you can be engaged in your surrounding community in ways that maybe large hospital can’t be.”