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2020 Marylanders of the Year: This year, we chose two | COMMENTARY

Dr. Kathleen Neuzil, director of the Center for Vaccine Development and Global Health, University of Maryland School of Medicine. She’s doing vaccine research last fall in this photo.
Dr. Kathleen Neuzil, director of the Center for Vaccine Development and Global Health, University of Maryland School of Medicine. She’s doing vaccine research last fall in this photo. (Handout)

This year has been like no other in our lifetimes; COVID-19 has taken our freedom, our loved ones and our familiar routines. It seems only fitting, then, that we also break from tradition in selecting The Baltimore Sun’s Marylander of the Year for 2020.

Though each of our five finalists, announced last week, is worthy of recognition, two stood out above the others for the significant impact their tireless work has had — or will soon have — on all of us. The efforts of one honoree will, we fervently hope, get us out of the pandemic hell in which we’ve all been living, while the work of the other is what’s enabled so many of us to get through it thus far.

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The Baltimore Sun’s 2020 co-Marylanders of the Year are: Kathleen Neuzil, director of the Center for Vaccine Development and Global Health at the University of Maryland School of Medicine; and the thousands of men and women who make up Maryland’s front-line workers in two vast and diverse categories — the health care and services industries.

Dr. Kathy Neuzil, is the Director of the Center for Vaccine Development & Global Health at the University of Maryland School of Medicine. 25 Women to Watch feature. September 8, 2020
Dr. Kathy Neuzil, is the Director of the Center for Vaccine Development & Global Health at the University of Maryland School of Medicine. 25 Women to Watch feature. September 8, 2020 (Lloyd Fox/Baltimore Sun)

Dr. Neuzil is among the world’s leading research scientists in vaccine development and policy, and the only American member of the World Health Organization’s prestigious Strategic Advisory Group of Experts on Immunization. Her work at the Center for Vaccine Development in Baltimore has most recently focused on influenza and typhoid, but the respiratory disease specialist pivoted to the novel coronavirus as the need became clear.

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As one of two principal vaccine investigators for the COVID-19 Prevention Trials Network launched by the National Institutes of Health, Dr. Neuzil has led a major effort to develop and test safe and effective COVID-19 vaccines under the country’s Operation Warp Speed public-private partnership.

She and her colleagues at the School of Medicine have been involved in the testing of two vaccines already (from Pfizer and Moderna), with testing of a third from Novavax set to begin shortly. They’ve also tested the antiviral drug remdesivir, which has since been approved by the Food and Drug Administration to reduce complications and death from COVID-19. And they participated in a study that debunked false claims by the president and some others that malaria drug hydroxychloroquine was an effective treatment for the novel coronavirus. In short, they’ve given up sleep and weekends and personal lives to focus on this urgent work.

Dr. Neuzils’ colleagues describe her as a visionary leader and strategic thinker who, even at the helm of this huge effort, makes it a priority to mentor the next generation of vaccinologists. While the work she and her colleagues do is critical every day of every year, it is particularly so in 2020, making Dr. Neuzil a natural choice for the 2020 Marylander of the Year.

Her co-honorees, too, are everyday heroes whose varied roles in society help us to live our lives comfortably, efficiently and safely in a normal year. But this year, these front-line workers were called upon to put their own lives at risk by continuing to do their jobs out in the world, and thus facing exposure to COVID-19.

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Frontline workers L-R Chef Que, restaurant owner, Tori Wilson, operations manager at Amazon, Robin Hof, ER nurse, Moise Verret, bus driver, Anthony Troy, grocery store employee, Dr. Amit Chandra, Duane Tilghman, postal carrier and Laura Trageser, respiratory therapist. (Karl Merton Ferron/Baltimore Sun Staff)
Frontline workers L-R Chef Que, restaurant owner, Tori Wilson, operations manager at Amazon, Robin Hof, ER nurse, Moise Verret, bus driver, Anthony Troy, grocery store employee, Dr. Amit Chandra, Duane Tilghman, postal carrier and Laura Trageser, respiratory therapist. (Karl Merton Ferron/Baltimore Sun Staff) (Karl Merton Ferron/Baltimore Sun)

On the health care side, doctors, nurses, respiratory therapists and others in the medical field interacted directly with individuals who contracted the deadly disease, offering them treatment, kindness and comfort — and, in too many cases, a hand to hold as their bodies gave out. Many people performing such critical work were separated from their own families, despite wearing layers of protective gear on the job, to avoid potentially infecting children and spouses. And some lost their own lives to this devastating disease, while working to save the lives of others. Two notable examples are Dr. Joseph Costa, who ran the critical care division of Mercy Medical Center and treated COVID-19 patients, and Dr. Lloyd Bowser Jr., a podiatrist who made house calls for elderly diabetic patients. The two beloved doctors died four months apart from COVID, each at the far too young age of 56.

The loss of life was not limited to those in health care. In April, Largo Giant employee Leilani Jordan, 27, and Windsor Mill bus driver David Dudley Sr., 61, each died of the disease. And thousands more essential workers got sick this year. Amazon warehouse employees came down with COVID, as did hundreds of U.S. Postal Service employees. In August, the Baltimore City Department of Public Works had to suspend recycling collection because a quarter of its workers were out on any given day, either in quarantine or active illness.

Those who could, though, kept at it every shift, delivering holiday presents and cards and groceries and meals and medications, so that many of us could stay within the relative safety of our homes. They brought us joy and basic necessities. They repaired our appliances, kept our food supply chain viable, rang up our produce purchases, and prepared takeout so good we forgot our problems for a while.

Many didn’t have a choice in becoming an essential, front-line worker; they just needed to keep their jobs, even as the work became risky. And we’re grateful they did. Whether a front-line worker is in a health care or services field, each contributed to the preservation of life — one through direct treatment and the other by allowing thousands of Marylanders to stay home and minimize COVID’s spread. We have all benefited from their efforts, and they, alongside Dr. Neuzil, heartily deserve the co-title of Marylander of the Year.

Combined, our two Marylanders of the Year kept 2020 from being unbearably bleak, and they give us hope for 2021.

The Baltimore Sun editorial board — made up of Opinion Editor Tricia Bishop, Deputy Editor Andrea K. McDaniels and writer Peter Jensen — offers opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. It is separate from the newsroom.

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