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Q&A with an Infectious Disease Doctor Working Through the COVID-19 Pandemic

Posted on Oct 23, 2020

Allison Messina, M.D., is chair of the Division of Infectious Disease and medical director of Infection Prevention at Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital.
Allison Messina, M.D., is chair of the Division of Infectious Disease and medical director of Infection Prevention at Johns Hopkins All Children’s.

She’s a mom, a doctor and one of the many front-line workers helping to fight the COVID-19 pandemic. Since COVID-19 began, Allison Messina, M.D., chair of the Division of Infectious Disease and medical director of Infection Prevention at Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital, has spent most of her time helping develop safety protocols, learning and answering questions about the virus, providing patient care … and participating in a lot of virtual meetings. In between her busy schedule though, she helped provide an inside look into what life has been like in and out of the hospital.

What were your first thoughts when you heard about COVID-19 and how did you know it was going to be a major concern?

When the reports started coming out about uncontrolled viral spread in Italy, I realized that this virus was going to be everywhere. I think because of my infectious diseases training, I was concerned earlier than most people about this becoming a global problem. As far back as I remember from medical school, I remember learning that the worst kind of problem to have is a new, highly infectious respiratory virus that can spread before a person has symptoms. We learned early on that SARS-CoV-2 was all of those things. I will say that I was somewhat surprised at how dangerous this virus seems to be. At first, I did not expect the mortality to be as high as it is.

What was your biggest worry when you knew this was a pandemic?

Scientific information, especially when it changes so rapidly, is sometimes very hard to communicate to the public. I was concerned about confusing messages derailing public health action. My biggest fear was that some people would not take this virus seriously and that there would not be a well-organized, scientifically guided, national level approach to the control of the virus.

What fears do you have as we continue to navigate through the pandemic?

Like everyone else, I am most concerned and afraid that people will suffer from this virus. That includes not only the people who physically get sick, but also those who suffer emotionally, economically and socially.

What’s it like seeing patients now?

Other than the extra personal protective equipment we need to wear, actually seeing patients is the only thing that I think is pretty much the same! I do not do a lot of telehealth visits because I am hospital based, so I still see my patients just like I always did. Now, I just have to wear a mask and a shield, which I don’t really mind doing.

How does your end of the day transition from the hospital to home work? 

I always make sure to wash or sanitize my hands and my cell phone. I pretty much always change out of my work clothes when I get home — but I’ve always done that. For me it is less about viruses and more that I am really much more a T-shirt and jeans kind of person.

How has it been to be a working mom through this and has it been hard to explain to your family what they should/shouldn't do to avoid COVID spread?

I feel lucky that my kids are older and are mostly self-sufficient, but it has been tough having to balance hours at work with homework and after-school activities. I think that they have been very patient with me. As for explaining COVID-19, my kids grew up with an infectious disease doctor for a mom, so I think they were a bit ahead of the game! They are used to me telling them to wash their hands and cover their coughs. They know why vaccines are so important.  I had to take it up a notch with asking them to wear masks all the time, but they really did take it in stride. I think the hardest thing for them has been not being able to see friends without physical distancing and wearing masks.

What has the pandemic taught us?

I think mostly, it has taught me the value of teamwork and community responsibility. Also, I think that one of the lessons that it taught the scientific community was how much good communication matters.

Do you see things going back to normal anytime soon, or ever again?

Eventually, yes. But I don’t see that happening until herd immunity is established through mass vaccination. I think that might be a year or two away at least.

Is there anything positive for you that's come of the pandemic? 

One positive thing is that I learned how to sew. I’ve made over 100 masks! Also, like everyone else, I’ve learned a lot about video conferencing. For many things, I think video conferencing is actually quite helpful.


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