COVID-19 is Not my First Epidemic

November 13, 2020
Rodger D. MacArthur, MD
Rodger D. MacArthur, MD

The author was a young medical student when the first signs of the HIV epidemic appeared and it shaped his career. How will COVID-19 impact today's young clinicians?

COVID-19 is not my first epidemic.

I was a second-year medical student in 1981 when the first reports of Kaposi’s sarcoma and Pneumocystis carinii pneumonia in previously healthy gay men presaged the coming of the HIV epidemic. I didn’t know it then, but HIV was to change my subsequent professional life in ways that I couldn’t imagine.

Of course, HIV and SARS-CoV-2 are very different viruses that are transmitted in completely different ways. But the AIDS epidemic and the COVID-19 epidemic, in the early stages, did share one common feature: FEAR.

I saw it in Baltimore when I was a fellow in infectious diseases at the Johns Hopkins Hospital. I remember vividly how my hands were shaking the first time I did a lumber puncture on an HIV-infected patient. And I saw that same kind of fear during the first few months of the COVID-19 epidemic when nurses and physicians would don masks and gowns as they were about to enter the rooms of patients hospitalized with COVID-19. I also heard that same fear in the voices of students as well as colleagues who would call me when they thought that they had been exposed to SARS-CoV-2 or had developed symptoms consistent with COVID-19.

I now know there is something else that SARS-CoV-2 and HIV have in common: the ways that these viruses did, and will, impact and change the careers of 2 different generations of medical students.

I am privileged to spend over half of my time in my current position teaching first- and second- year medical students. I am inspired by their intellect, eagerness, passion, and desire to make a difference. Our university, like many others, sent students home on March 12th. We did not re-open for in-person activities until July 27th. But during that time, students were active on many fronts related to COVID-19. Driven by their interest in learning more about the science and epidemiology of the virus and the pandemic, as well as by their desire to be part of the fight and to make a difference, they rose to the occasion in multiple ways. Among other activities, they

  • Participated in the design and implementation of online for-credit courses (eg, “Pandemic Medicine”)
  • Volunteered to make and distribute cloth masks
  • Wrote editorials for local newspapers
  • Designed research projects (eg, surveys of the impact of COVID-19 on students and nursing staff)
  • Researched and subsequently published on, among other topics, differences in the epidemiology of COVID-19 in different states
  • And, they started, and continue to keep current, a website for the public to have their questions answered about COVID-19.

I have no doubt that many of our students will choose careers in infectious diseases and/or public health. Others will do basic science research on viruses and vaccine development. And I also have no doubt that all of us will be in really good hands when the current generation of doctors-in-training begins to treat patients.

Watch this space in the coming months for thoughts from Medical College of Georgia students as they share their own thoughts on a wide variety of issues specific to infectious disease. It is a remarkable time to be learning, for all of us.

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Rodger D. MacArthur, MD, FIDSA, FACP
Professor of Medicine, Division of Infectious Diseases and Office of Academic Affairs
Medical College of Georgia at Augusta University, Augusta, Georgia