Sue Anne Bell: On Community Impacts of Coronavirus

March 17, 2020


Sue Anne Bell

Sue Anne Bell

Sue Anne Bell, assistant professor in the School of Nursing, is a disaster expert. She serves on the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services National Disaster Medical System and is currently deployed as part of the national COVID-19 response. She is prohibited from discussing specifics, but can relate general lessons from this and other disasters.

What are you seeing as the greatest need for health care workers?

There is a critical shortage of supplies—masks, face shields, thermometers, hand sanitizer. We are going to see this for the duration, and need creative solutions. I’ve seen news reports about distilleries switching from making hard liquor to hand sanitizer. I’ve heard about creative uses of 3D printers, for those few who have access, to print certain types of medical supplies.

I believe there will be critical shortages of qualified health care providers. ICU nurses, for example, are highly specialized and highly competent—and also highly in demand in “normal” conditions. Right now, we need just-in-time training for all levels of providers, from physicians to nurses to ancillary staff. If we can train, for example, nurses from outside of the ICU to take on some of the less complex tasks in an ICU, that could free overburdened ICU nurses for more complex care. Task shifting like this isn’t new but could have important implications.

Additionally, some cities are developing volunteer cohorts of health care providers not currently employed in direct patient care. We may need these willing individuals to assume a role, whether it’s supporting overwhelmed nursing homes or basic screening at testing sites.

What are communities doing well, and where do they need help?

There is an admirable uptick in volunteerism, and I see many communities really pitching in to support each other. But we already know this—volunteerism goes up in the immediate period after community emergencies. If this can be sustained, we can rally to address the long-term effects on communities.

We are for the most part social creatures and used to an on-demand lifestyle. Staying at home, not going out for latte or dinner ingredients––we aren’t used to it, and it can seem almost absurd right now when things are still relatively calm. The kind of draconian measures we saw in China are likely what we need, but so foreign to us, as individuals, and also for the elected officials who represent us.

Community education, especially for older adults and those who have chronic illnesses, on ways they can access services would be so helpful right now. For example, how to use online ordering and grocery delivery services. I know my mid-70s parents don’t want to relinquish their daily lunch outing. We talked this morning about calling in a carry-out order, prepaying, then asking for it to be brought out to the car. These shifts can support local businesses with new types of service.

For communities that aren’t as hard hit yet, what advice can you give residents and local officials?

I don’t think the magnitude of what social distancing means has set in. We need to help people understand that we are still in the early days, and it will be a long time before it improves.

In my community, large groups of kids are playing together outside—I think parents think it’s OK because they’re outside. That is not the case, and that is not social distancing. We have to remember––this isn’t just about individuals, our actions affect our whole community.