Back in April I wrote in this space that we would soon know more about the impact of the novel coronavirus, and unfortunately much of what we’ve learned in the intervening weeks has been grim, starting with more than 110,000 lives lost in the US and a worldwide death toll exceeding 400,000 as of early June.
Along with the disease and associated stay-at-home orders has come economic devastation and unprecedented job losses. And there have also been examples of heroism among health professionals and other essential workers, resilience and mutual support within communities, and promising efforts at developing more effective treatments and a vaccine. All parts of our current era of adjusting to the presence of this virus in our world, probably for a good while to come.
I also promised that in this issue we would report on how the Penn community has responded to, and reflected on, the challenges posed by COVID-19 in these early days. Our cover package, “Penn and the Pandemic,” collects stories from a variety of perspectives concerning patient care and research, how teaching and learning may change coming out of the crisis, putting the current pandemic into historical context, and telling how individual alumni have been affected.
Included, among others, are reports about a researcher working on a possible vaccine, an expert in elder care’s advice on how to improve nursing homes going forward, what it’s like to take over a big city public transportation system on the eve of a pandemic, and a leading restaurateur’s experience navigating his operation and staff through the crisis to eventual reopening. And Penn Medicine’s leaders describe the Health System’s contributions to treating patients and providing testing sites in the community, innovations to ensure safety and support staff mental health, and a “12- to 18-month playbook” to harness Penn’s expertise to help understand and control COVID-19.
Our essayists also weigh the impact, from a graduating senior’s column drawing connections between her current quarantine in West Philadelphia, her teenage online life, and a project early in her interrupted final semester to work a hand-operated letterpress; to the tribulations of a traveler caught in the wave of border closings forced to make her way home from a much-anticipated Antarctic trip; to a new doctor thrust into emergency service treating COVID patients at the same time that he and his wife are expecting their first child.
Associate editor Dave Zeitlin C’03’s feature profile of author Erik Larson C’76, “Courage Through History,” also resonates with the present moment. Larson’s recent book, The Splendid and the Vile, deals with London under the Blitz and the inspirational leadership of Winston Churchill early in World War II. While he doesn’t push too hard on the parallels, Larson does admit some similarities, both in small things like product shortages, and in larger terms. “In London at that time, everybody had to pull together,” he told Dave. “We have to pull together now.”
Elsewhere in the feature well, we offer tales of two very different forms of stress relief. In “The Power of the Pup,” frequent contributor Kathryn Levy Feldman LPS’09 describes the pet-assisted therapy programs at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, HUP, and Presbyterian Hospital, as well as her own involvement (with her dogs Millie and Franklin) as a volunteer. And Susan Karlin C’85 profiles cannabis industry entrepreneur Rob Rosenheck C’89, CEO of Lord Jones, which sells CBD-infused candy and other products, in “Seeds of Insight.”
Among the consequences of Penn’s necessary decision in March to close down the campus and cancel all public events until further notice was the loss of the traditional spring ceremonies of Alumni Weekend and Commencement, which we normally cover in this issue. Both went forward in virtual versions, however, with in-person celebrations rescheduled for next May, the week after regular 2021 events will take place.
A summary of what University Chaplain Chaz Howard C’00 called “a commencement unlike any other” appears as the lead story in “Gazetteer” and, in place of our usual Alumni Weekend photo album, we share some images of scattered celebrants (and kids, and pets) gathered from social media. While there’s nothing like being there, one advantage in this case is that you can still view these events online if you happen to have missed them at the time.
—John Prendergast C’80