Indian Americans on the frontlines: Doctors, officials and journalists in pandemic spotlight

CNN's Dr. Sanjay Gupta (Getty Images)

Since the coronavirus (COVID-19) health scare began creeping into America earlier this year, Dr. Sanjay Gupta of CNN has been a fixture on the cable television, as he broke down the virus, its symptoms and the precautions, preventions and cure. Now, as the full blown pandemic has completely changed the way Americans lead their lives, there are several Indian Americans — media personalities, doctors with expertise in global health issues and government administrators — who have come into national and international limelight. They have become some of the most visible public faces of fighting the pandemic. 

Gupta, along with other Indian Americans like Seema Verma, Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services administrator and a member of President Trump’s coronavirus task force; former U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy; Dr. Kavita Patel, Nonresident Fellow at the Brookings Institution, and Ashish Jha of the Harvard Global Health Institute, are some of the public faces of the coronavirus pandemic, working around the clock, demystifying the health scare. They are tracking the spread of the virus, helping anxious Americans understand the way the Trump administration is working to ‘flatten the curve’ and reduce the spread of the disease, as well as offer guidelines on how to follow social distancing and ways to cope with the pandemic. 

Working Behind the Scenes

While Gupta, Murthy and Patel are the helping Americans decipher the current health crisis and navigate through these trying and uncertain times, Seema Verma, a member of President Trump’s coronavirus task force, is working behind the scenes, with Vice President Mike Pence and others.

Earlier on March 13, during President Donald Trump’s Rose Garden press conference, where he announced a national emergency to counter the exponential spread of the coronavirus, Pence said that Verma would lead the efforts to “look after senior citizens with chronic underlying health conditions.” He said she would put into effect “the president’s directive to raise the standards at our nursing homes, increase inspections at our nursing homes,” to alleviate the lot of the elder Americans “who are the most vulnerable.”

Indian Americans on the frontlines: Doctors, officials and journalists in pandemic spotlight

Vice President Mike Pence, standing with members of the White House Coronavirus Task Force team, speaks during a press briefing in the press briefing room of the White House March 10, 2020 in Washington. Seema Verma, administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, is seen on the right foreground. (Getty Images)

However, a day before Pence thrust her to speak at the podium during the president’s briefing, Verma, appearing on the Trump-friendly Fox News was castigated by the cable station’s host for obfuscating questions and ducking giving a direct answer about whether there are sufficient supplies to deal with the deadly outbreak.

On March 17, Verma announced at a White House press briefing that the agency would greatly expand its coverage for telemedicine nationwide, the Associated Press reported. By allowing older patients “virtual” care that would allow them to stay at home, “it helps us prevent the spread of the virus,” the AP report quoted Verma as saying.

Social Distancing and ‘Flattening The Curve’

In a recent segment on CNN, Gupta advised Americans to behave like they have the virus to help take proper measures. Gupta is also an associate chief of the neurosurgery service at Grady Memorial Hospital in Atlanta, Georgia, and an assistant professor of neurosurgery at the Emory University School of Medicine. According to the Washington Post, Gupta has “earned the nation’s trust by explaining everything from battlefield medicine in Iraq, where he stopped to perform emergency surgery on a wounded Marine, to obesity and heart disease.” Gupta always appears calm and composed, however alarming or tense the situation is, with his signature smile, while he gives the lowdown the health of America. 

However, recently, Americans got to see a different side of Gupta. The Washington Post said that on March 17, in a segment with CNN’s Jake Tapper, Gupta lost his cool while watching Americans walk hand in hand at San Francisco’s Embarcadero, completely ignoring social distancing. “How I behave affects your health. How you behave affects my health,” Gupta said during the segment, according to the Washington Post. “Never, I think, have we been so dependent on each other, at least not in my lifetime, and we should rise to that occasion.” He urged people to take action immediately. “Most people aren’t going to get that sick with it, but a lot of people are going to get sick and some are going to die,” Gupta said, and added, “What happens to them, how many people get sick and how many people die, is very much dependent on what we do right now. Not even tomorrow, certainly not next week, right now.”

On his Twitter handle, ahead of the March 20 weekend he wrote: “Please don’t get complacent this weekend. I know it will be hard, as this is really starting to settle in for many. Stay home. Slow down. Tidy up. Call an old friend, as they are hopefully home as well. Please behave as if you have the virus. So, be kind.”

Similarly, Murthy has been seen across major news networks, warning people and urging them to do their part in “flattening the curve.” In a recent appearance on CNN, Murthy, who served as the 19th Surgeon General of the United States, from 2014 to 2017, said, “It saddens me to say this, but there will be more cases, and we will have more complications. While we can’t necessarily change that reality, what we can do is to try and flatten the curve.”

Indian Americans on the frontlines: Doctors, officials and journalists in pandemic spotlight

Dr. Ashish Jha, physician and director of the Harvard Global Health Institute.

Identifying the most important priorities for the public in the weeks to come, Murthy told Fox’s “America’s Newsroom” that the highest priority is to make sure that the hospitals have protective gear for the healthcare professionals. There is a shortage of gloves masks and other equipment to protect nurses and doctors who are treating ill patients, Murthy said, adding that “hospital systems across the U.S. are struggling right now.” They are struggling for a couple of reasons,” Murthy told “America’s Newsroom.” He said “hospitals are lacking equipment such as visors, as well as masks and sufficient testing capacity to get a sense of how many are infected with the coronavirus.”

‘We are Nowhere Near

The End’

Echoing Gupta’s and Murthy’s concern is Dr. Kavita Patel, a former Obama official, and currently a nonresident fellow at the Brookings Institution. Explaining the impact of the coronavirus on America’s hospitals, Patel, on MSNBC said: “I am currently seeing posts about how you can hack a mask out of Home Depot supplies and people have been doing this. Hospital administrations only have a certain number of masks and they are being told that they cannot get more.” Patel has warned that the number of coronavirus cases will grow exponentially. “We are nowhere near seeing the end of the growth in reported cases.” Calling the new numbers of those affected in U.S., “the tip of the iceberg,” Patel told MSNBC that “this exponential it is not linear. So, we know this is going to go into the tens of thousands in a matter of days.”

Patel, who served as director of policy for the Office of Intergovernmental Affairs and Public Engagement in the White House, in the Obama administration, has criticized the Trump administration for its initial response to the coronavirus health scare.

Speaking to MSNBC, Patel said that Trump administration has been “behind in every milestone, from expanding FDA authority, the tests, as well as asking the Congress for money to send to local and regional public health authorities.”

She had also denied the President’s initial claim that the coronavirus scare was a “hoax” and a political move. “It’s not political, it’s science,” she said. She said that this kind of behavior “sends a message that there is no room for facts” in the Trump administration.

Indian Americans on the frontlines: Doctors, officials and journalists in pandemic spotlight

Dr. Monica Bharel, commissioner, Massachusetts Department of Public Health.

According to her profile on Brookings Institution website, Patel is a practicing primary care internist at Johns Hopkins Medicine.

During her role in Obama’s White House, Patel, as a senior aide to Valerie Jarrett, President Obama’s senior advisor, played a critical role in policy development and evaluation of policy initiatives connected to health reform, financial regulatory reform, and economic recovery issues. 

Brookings says Patel also has a “deep understanding of Capitol Hill from her time spent on the late Senator Edward Kennedy’s staff.

“As deputy staff director on health, she served as a policy analyst and trusted aide to the senator and was part of the senior staff of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee under Sen. Kennedy’s leadership. She also has an extensive research and clinical background, having worked as a researcher at the RAND Corporation and as a practicing physician in both California and Oregon.”

Patel currently advises health care technology and services organizations through New Enterprise Associates. Patel is a previous Robert Wood Johnson Clinical Scholar. While at Brookings, she returned to providing clinical care as an internal medicine practitioner. She earned her medical degree from the University of Texas Health Science Center and her Master’s in public health from the University of California Los Angeles.

‘U.S. is Nowhere Near Where it Should be’

Like Patel, another critic of the Trump administration is global health expert Dr. Ashish Jha, a physician and director of the Harvard Global Health Institute. Jha has been tracking the spread of the coronavirus closely over the past couple months and has been outspoken about the Trump administration’s slow response to the threat and the slow pace of testing in the U.S.

To highlight the shortage of protective gear for medical staff, Jha has changed his Twitter handle to Ashish ‘We need PPEs [personal protective equipment] to protect docs & nurses’ Jha.

He told The New Yorker that  “the challenge in front of us in the upcoming week or two — and, actually, lasting much longer than that — is that the number of patients arriving with COVID-19 infections is going to spike across American hospitals.” He noted that if the Trump administration “had got on top of this thing two months ago, America would look very, very different.” Speaking on “Bill Hemmer Reports,” Jha said that we are still kind of in the exponential phase. “I’m hopeful that in the next two weeks, we will have a much better sense of where we are as a country, we will do enough testing, and identify enough people that are infected ... and we can actually say with confidence how much the virus is in our community, in our town and we can then make a plan, he said. Jha noted that while the U.S. is “nowhere near where we need to be” with regard to testing,

“I’ve been feeling a bit more optimistic, the logjam is starting to break as well.” He noted” “I think we should be testing 150,000 Americans a day maybe, even more,” he said. “Yesterday we think we tested probably 20,000 or 25,000 ... that’s better than where we were a week ago ... and we still have a long way to go but we are making progress.” He also stressed that it is critical that production and testing of the experimental drugs be ramped up to determine their effectiveness.

Similarly, there are several Indian Americans who are in positions of importance at the state and national level who are working diligently to fight the spread of the dreaded disease. Below are some of their profiles: 

Dr. Nirav Shah, director, Maine Centers for Disease Control

Through daily press briefings, Dr. Nirav Shah is the public face of the state’s response to the coronavirus pandemic. According to Bangor Daily News, Shah provides updates on the number of coronavirus cases each day and explains to Mainers the importance of social distancing and other public health measures aimed at slowing the virus’ spread.

“Flanked by a sign language interpreter, Shah, 42, usually takes questions from reporters for at least a half-hour,” the Bangor Daily News said, adding that Shah has “won over many viewers with a measured voice, detailed answers and simple but striking real-life examples.” Previously, Shah served as the director of the Illinois Department of Health. Earlier in his career, Shah served as the chief economist of the Ministry of Health of Cambodia, during his tenure as a Henry Luce Scholar.

In Cambodia, he worked on a variety of public health programs aimed at reducing corruption in the health care system. In particular, he designed a system that reduced the number of administrative steps required to transfer funds from the central Ministry to rural hospitals, thereby reducing opportunities for corruption and graft. 

Dr. Monica Bharel, Commissioner, Massachusetts Department of Public Health

As the virus is spreading across the county, Bharel, on March 15 announced that there is community spread in seven counties in the state. “Please take seriously the social distancing measures that you heard the governor speak about,” Bharel, who serves as the Commonwealth’s chief physician,  said, according to ABC affiliate WCVB5. “Social distancing is our collective opportunity to influence the course of this illness and flatten the curve. Each of us needs to do our part.”  Bharel helps lead the state’s aggressive response to the opioid crisis and is dedicated to reducing health disparities and developing data-driven, evidence-based solutions for keeping people healthy. She was appointed to her position by Governor Charlie Baker in February 2015.

Bharel has practiced general internal medicine for more than 20 years including at Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston Medical Center, in neighborhood health centers, the Veterans Administration, and at nonprofit organizations. She has served on the faculty of Harvard Medical School, Boston University Medical School, and Harvard School of Public Health.

Dr. Rahul Sharma, professor and chairman of the Department of Emergency Medicine at Weill Cornell Medicine

During these trying times, when everyone is changing their way of life by adopting self isolation and social distancing, doctors are navigating the unchartered territories of telemedicine. While the NewYork-Presbyterian hospital has been using telemedicine for a long time, Sharma told usnews.com that although it’s not new, “we’re seeing why it’s so powerful and useful. We want everyone to be safe, and to minimize disease spread.” He said the goal is for people to avoid the ER if it’s not an emergency.

Telemedicine is seeing a doctor remotely via video, phone or text. “In a crisis such as COVID-19 our goal is to benefit the public and decrease the risk of infection and telemedicine is a perfect opportunity to do that,” Dr. Rahul Sharma told GMA. Telemedicine allows those who are immunocompromised or quarantined to get a doctor’s advice from home.

It can also keep patients who believe they may have the coronavirus out of the emergency room where they could spread the disease to others.

As the inaugural chairman for the Department of Emergency Medicine, Sharma leads all academic and operational activities for the NYP-Weill Cornell Medical Center and NYP-Lower Manhattan Hospital Emergency Departments. He is also a Professor of Clinical Healthcare Policy and Research and serves as the academic Chairman for the NYP-Weill Cornell Medicine affiliated Emergency Departments at New York Presbyterian-Queens and New York Presbyterian-Brooklyn Methodist Sharma holds several other executive leadership roles, including Chief and Medical Director of Emergency Medical Services (EMS) for the NYP enterprise, member of the New York State Board for Medicine, and the Vice President of the New York Presbyterian Hospital Medical Board.

Dr. Sejal Hathi, Resident Physician, Massachusetts General Hospital

Another physician highlighting the plight of doctors and nurses treating those affected with coronavirus is Dr. Sejal Hathi of Massachusetts General Hospital. “Hospitals across the country are rapidly running out of masks, gowns, protective eye-wear that they desperately need,” she told CNN.

“We are being asked to reuse and recycle single-use respirators and surgical masks when we go see patients.” She emphasized that “health care workers are foot soldiers in a war we didn’t foresee and were never trained for. And we’re hurdling forth into a battle with neither the insight into where these infections are nor the armor to protect against them. And that’s really not OK.”

According to her LinkedIn profile, Hathi is training in Internal Medicine at the Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School, where her “interests and experience span global health, public policy, social entrepreneurship, and grassroots advocacy.” She has founded and led two grassroots social enterprises advancing women’s rights and agency — over time, across 6 continents and 100 countries. In 2013, Hathi was the youngest of nine appointed to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s expert advisory group on women’s & children’s health, charged with evaluating and reporting global progress on Millennium Development Goals 4 & 5.

She has also helped build two coalitions advancing the domestic #resistance movement: 1) a student-run campaign to advocate against repeal of the Affordable Care Act, reaching 150+ schools in its first year, and 2) a political organization to convene and support first-time progressive candidates for office, mobilizing 1500+ since the 2016 presidential election.

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