Everyday Heroism in Extraordinary Times

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In the face of global crisis, Penn rises to meet the challenge.

By Amy Gutmann

These were the most unsettling set of decisions in all my years as a university leader: To ask every student who had a safe home to leave campus mid-semester. To extend Spring Break for a week to enable students to resettle and faculty to gear up to teach 4,000 courses via virtual instruction in one week’s time. To postpone until a date uncertain our most venerable and jubilant celebrations, Commencement and Alumni Weekend. To empty our dynamic campus of all but essential personnel.

Over a matter of days, the transition from BC (before coronavirus) to AD (after disruption) had become an absolute imperative. At the urging of public health experts, based on incontrovertible evidence of how quickly this virus spreads and how often it kills, we acted.

As I write this in late March, we are in the early stages of a war with COVID-19. We took decisive action to reduce our campus numbers for two all-important purposes. First, we must safeguard the health of our students, faculty, staff, and community. Second, we must do everything we can in advance to prevent our health system from being overwhelmed and understaffed at the precise moment when vulnerable individuals whose lives are at risk need us most. As wrenching as these decisions felt at the time, mounting evidence suggests that they correctly anticipated what’s to come. This is a battle that engages us all to serve a common good.

Extraordinary times call forth extraordinary bravery, as has been so evident among our courageous Penn doctors and nurses, researchers and volunteers. Extraordinary times also evince everyday heroism. Each of our actions and decisions have a profound effect on how well, and how soon, this war ends. Writing with six other academic health center leaders in the New York Times, Perelman School of Medicine Dean Larry Jameson captured the stakes of our individual action: “physical separation is the best way to slow the spread. The fewer contacts, and the greater distance between people, the better. … Our doctors and nurses are ready to care for you. Our research teams are constantly working to find new treatments. But they need your help. Be a health care hero.”

By accepting this responsibility, we exercise everyday heroism in extraordinary times. We not only protect our families, friends, and those most at risk. We also—and as essentially—reduce the surge of demand on our healthcare systems. We support and give our healthcare heroes a fighting chance to carry out their calling, to save lives.

Penn Medicine is on the front lines of this war. Even before we emptied the campus, we had already initiated massive preparation for a surge in coronavirus cases. Today, the University of Pennsylvania Health System continues to ramp up all measures on this front. As I write, our doctors and nurses are testing and treating COVID-19 positive cases from across the region, and the numbers are rising very quickly. Our efforts are guided by CHIME (COVID-19 Hospital Impact Model for Epidemics), a sophisticated algorithm built in record time by Penn data scientist Corey Chivers and associates in Predictive Healthcare that has already been adopted widely, including by the California Department of Public Health, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), and increasing numbers of nations overseas. Based on this modeling, Penn is preparing.

All elective surgeries have been cancelled. Telemedicine has replaced thousands of in-person appointments, rising from about a hundred a day to 5,000 daily now, and climbing. As many hospital rooms as can be spared are being reserved for patients whose lives will depend on our capacity to offer care. We have set up Influenza-Like Illness Surge Tents outside of all UPHS emergency rooms. We are developing plans for a possible super surge that will require use of tents, lobbies, and vacated clinical spaces for critical cases, while incorporating non-emergency department physicians into the emergency workforce. Penn researchers are leading efforts to combat the virus through initiatives such as our newly launched Center for Research on Coronaviruses and Other Emerging Pathogens. We are also screening FDA-approved drugs for activity against COVID-19.

We bring to bear the research might of Penn—recognized as one of the top four most innovative universities in the world—while confronting the same challenges facing so many regions of our country and the world. Personal protective equipment for care providers is increasingly in short supply. We seek a dramatic increase in access to ventilators and other essential lifesaving devices. We take every possible step to care for the doctors and nurses on the front lines. Their brave work puts them most at risk of contracting the disease themselves. Here is where the everyday heroism of Penn people from around the world is already making a profound difference.

The global response from our alumni has been inspiring. You see it at a city drive-thru COVID-19 testing site in the parking lot of Citizens Bank Park, where Penn Nursing alumna Marina Spitkovskaya Nu’11 GNu’14 puts on a protective face mask before swabbing patients. You hear of it when you learn that Wharton Board of Overseers member Xin Zhou arranged an emergency shipment of 20,000 N95 face masks for immediate use in the Penn Health System, to be followed by a second shipment of additional medical supplies within days. Other alumni from China are in the process of shipping N95 facemasks to the Health System, some in quantities of 10,000 or more. And each day I hear of more alumni who are reaching out to support our Penn community.

Facing challenges and an unsettling terrain we have never before experienced, Penn faculty, students, and staff have responded with alacrity, doing what we do best: discovering knowledge, caring for others, teaching the next generation. I was not surprised that when Penn launched an online class, “Epidemics, Natural Disasters, and Geopolitics: Managing Global Business and Financial Uncertainty,” it received extensive media attention as the first of its kind to give students the opportunity to learn, in real time, from the current crisis and how to prepare for the next one. More than 1,900 students are currently enrolled and Wharton professor Mauro Guillen, who leads the class, has brought together a stellar group of Penn faculty possessing multidisciplinary expertise ranging from politics and psychology to international finance, crisis management, and behavioral economics.

At the same time as launching our virtual classroom, we announced $4 million of support to our local communities, small businesses, and workers impacted by COVID-19. These funds will be used to distribute emergency grants to eligible Penn employees and third-party, contract workers; they will provide support for University City retailers and neighborhood businesses; and will contribute to the PHL COVID-19 Fund in support of local non-profit social services agencies. With a $1 million Penn Medicine employee assistance plan already in place and pay continuation for Bon Appetit contract dining workers through May 15, Penn’s total contribution to emergency assistance exceeds $5 million.

It would take pages upon pages for me to report on all the activities like these that exemplify what Penn does best. In the face of global crisis, we meet the challenge, we help the afflicted, we rise to the occasion, we teach what can be learned, and we learn what can be done better.

A brisk walk across campus today reveals a strange dichotomy: College Green, Penn Park, and the entire length of Locust Walk are decked in spring colors, yet eerily empty. I am not dispirited. The perennial blooms remind us that regular academic life in all its vibrancy will return. And the quiet in its own way reassures: It’s the sound of all Penn people acting together as one, with heroism both extraordinary and everyday, to meet this challenge. It is the quiet of focus, of steely determination as Penn prepares and responds.

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