Health care professionals share their COVID-19 perspectives

Dr. Angela Rogers ’96 Dr. Joshua Kline ’98 Dr. Trent Towne

“Taking care of COVID patients has been one of the great honors of my life,” Dr. Angela Rogers ’96 told a virtual gathering of MU community members in November. She is an expert in pulmonary and critical care medicine at Stanford University Medical Center and participated in a panel discussion about the pandemic with fellow graduate Dr. Joshua Kline ’98, chief medical officer of Parkview Physicians Group in Fort Wayne, and Dr. Trent Towne, associate professor of pharmacy practice at MU and a clinical pharmacy specialist in infectious diseases at Parkview Regional Medical Center.

The three health care professionals discussed their roles as frontline workers and how their experience with COVID-19 has evolved since the pandemic started in early 2020.

“The early days were very difficult,” said Rogers, because so much about COVID-19 was still unknown. While old age and underlying health problems do place COVID patients at higher risk, Rogers said she sees young, otherwise healthy patients in the ICU, too.

She warned then about the nation’s current reality – that this winter would be a very difficult time for Americans and the health professionals who care for them. “There are definitely people who die that don’t need to die when a hospital system is overwhelmed.”

Kline, part of the Incident Command Center at Parkview, agreed that doctors are far more knowledgeable than they were at first. “We’ve learned a whole lot and we know a whole lot that we didn’t know in March.”

That said, the politicization of science “has been challenging to overcome.” With a “vacuum of leadership at the federal level,” people have had to look to state and local sources, including their own physicians, for sound information. Controlling the virus “really is about a wearing a mask, appropriate social distancing and washing your hands,” he said. Americans can’t afford to let down their guard.

Kline noted that doctors, nurses and others in the health care community have pulled together, but they’re really tired. Towne added, that, “the mental health of our health care providers is very fragile right now,” and some are even leaving the field. Health care professionals are forced to fight two battles, Towne added, keeping patients alive and trying to educate “people not believing that this is real.”

All three panelists said they are learning a lot as the pandemic wears on. ICU care is more effective than it was at first, said Rogers, even as lingering issues of “long-haulers” emerge. For example, patients are experiencing heart scarring, lung scarring, chronic fatigue and neurological symptoms.

“There is a range of disability that people will be left with that we’re just starting to recognize,” said Rogers. “One of the challenges of this virus,” added Kline, “is not knowing why some people get as sick as they do.”

“It’s a very wily virus,” added Towne. “It doesn’t follow a playbook.”

Other lessons learned relate to our public health system. People in underserved communities are suffering more and the disparity “is glaring,” said Dr. Rogers. Kline noted significant structural problems. “We undervalue primary care, preventative care and public health as a nation,” added Kline.  

As America faces the darkest days of the pandemic this winter, what should people do?

Stay up to date on your vaccinations, said Towne, especially for influenza and pneumonia. Vaccines protect not only the people who get them, but also the people in their orbit and, he added, reduce the risk of a hospital visit.

Wearing a mask is not a political statement and is not about our freedom, added Rogers. “The virus doesn’t care what we believe.” In addition to masks, hand-washing and social distancing, “the one thing we can do is stay home as much as we can.”

All three noted the relative success that schools are having at controlling the virus, in large part because children are wearing masks. Kids are showing us the way, said Rogers.  “If they can do it, we can do it. We really are all in this together.”