Dr. Taison Bell is busy. A physician of pulmonary and critical care medicine and infectious disease at the University of Virginia, he directs the medical intensive care unit, which treats patients with the most severe cases of COVID-19. In that role, Bell takes primary care of patients and provides expertise about infectious diseases. Additionally, he is covering the hospital epidemiology pager to help decide whether patients should be tested for COVID-19, is a principal investigator on a drug trial for remdesivir — an antiviral medication that may be effective against the novel coronavirus — and is collaborating with the university’s Engineering School to make personal protective equipment for the community and health care workers.
The work does not stop when Bell returns home.
“I’ve never really been good at tracking hours, but I would say that the one thing that is definitely different is that I have a lot more meetings now before and after the kids go to bed,” Bell said. “Those moments when I was at home, and I tried to be just present as a dad and a husband, they’re kind of taken up by checking emails and responding to things, so I don’t have a lot of actual downtime, even when I’m at home.”
Bell says he does not feel burnt out but is worried about the long-term sustainability of his and his colleagues’ hustle. He said that everything changing so quickly with the coronavirus disrupts the normal pace of the hospital, where hospital decision-makers have been forced to make policy changes quickly, sometimes leading to confusion.
Hospital workers also face the anxiety created by seeing other health systems across the country overwhelmed by coronavirus caseloads and depleted of PPE. According to multiple sources for this story, UVa has a sufficient supply of PPE for now.
“The common theme that links all this is there’s fear of the unknown,” Bell said. “Because this is a new virus that’s causing a pandemic, and we’ve seen pandemics before but the scale of this is much farther, much more massive … The last major pandemic this could compare to is 1918. We have much more population, we’re living longer, and we’re overall, on aggregate, more crowded into dense urban areas.”
Bell has gained national prominence in recent weeks for advocating that state and federal governments release data showing how different racial and ethnic groups have been affected by COVID-19. Data that has been released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicates that Black communities are disproportionately at risk of having COVID-19. But data on patients’ race is missing in 65 percent of cases nationwide and data on patients’ ethnicity is missing in 67 percent of cases.
“The point is to really look at our vulnerable populations, and the first part of that is understanding exactly where the problems are,” Bell said. “You don’t know if you don’t have the data. And if you don’t have the data, then you put the mechanism in place to get that data so that you can ultimately know how to respond effectively. A lot of this pre-existed COVID disease, so the things that make African American communities more susceptible are increased rates of chronic diseases like heart disease, kidney disease, lung disease, asthma, hypertension, diabetes.”
With all these efforts requiring his energy, Bell said one of the ways he has been practicing self-care through this crisis has been sharing with his colleagues when he has had a hard day.
“Even talking about it and reaching out can sometimes make you feel better even if there’s no resolution to it, and it’s something that a lot of I find a lot of healthcare workers aren’t used to because we’re used to shouldering other people’s burdens,” Bell said. “This time, more than ever, we need to look out for each other.”