Politics must stay out of COVID-19 testing and treatment if the pandemic is to be controlled, several medical professionals told Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., during a Tuesday panel hosted by Democratic hopeful Dr. Cameron Webb.
Webb, who is vying for the seat representing Virginia’s 5th Congressional district, arranged the event, and said he hoped it would help frontline workers bring their issues directly to the Warner.
Hosted at Champion Brewing Company’s outdoor pavilion in Charlottesville, Warner and Webb — seated at a distance from each other to follow CDC guidelines — spoke with a panel of six doctors and frontline workers about what issues they’ve seen while combating COVID-19 and what they believe may help bring the pandemic under control.
Webb, a doctor, assistant professor of medicine and a director of health policy and equity at the University of Virginia, began the round table by stressing the qualifications of the speakers, all of whom were there in their personal capacities and not representing their organizations or employers.
Warner, introducing himself to the others, spoke about his efforts so far, which include helping pass the CARES Act and working on legislation to assist Black-owned small businesses. Though the stock market has been up, Warner said, the market does not reflect the financial insecurities facing millions of Americans.
“I’ve been trying to help in the ways I know how to from my experience as a businessman, but there are things I don’t know that medical professionals are indispensable voices for,” Warner said.
Over the course of the hourlong conversation, the speakers highlighted many inequities, particularly as they relate to who is and is not getting tested.
Dr. Ebony Hilton said that the pandemic has had a disproportionate impact on the Black community , pointing to a higher national infection and death rate among Black people. Hilton said the COVID-19 pandemic is not unique, as Black Americans face systemic challenges and higher rates of disease and death than any other racial group.
“Many Black people are frustrated that people are surprised we’re dying at higher rates, because we’ve been dying at higher rates since we were brought over here in 1619,” she said. “Why is that and why is America OK with that?”
While Paycheck Protection Programs and other assistance programs for businesses can help some, Hilton said she is more inclined to support programs that build and strengthen communities from the ground up.
Dr. Leigh-Ann Webb, an emergency room physician and Cameron Webb’s wife, said the strain of the pandemic has been particularly heavy on her and her colleagues. Those near Charlottesville are lucky as there is access to robust medical care, but for some in more rural and underserved communities the risk of death is higher.
“Whether or not someone got care is like whether or not they had access to high-quality broadband,” she said. “Now we’re seeing a robust increase in the emergency response and we’re hoping to apply an equity lens to everything we do.”
Kellen Squire, who works as an emergency room nurse at Sentara Martha Jefferson, expressed frustration with how, despite being six months into the pandemic, testing and personal protective equipment are still inadequate.
“I heard stories growing up about how during World War II within six months we were … building tanks and planes and stuff like that, but now we can’t even make enough swabs for people’s noses in the year 2020,” he said.
Dr. Amy Salerno, who works in geriatric and palliative care at UVa Medical Center, stressed the value of testing as a means of reducing case numbers.
It is not enough, she said, just to increase production of testing materials; quicker, cheaper and more discrete tests are also needed.
“People are terrified and it takes them a long time before they’re willing to come and get it done because it’s uncomfortable, and so having a quick saliva test will go a long way to improving access,” she said. “Another area of access for testing that we’ve seen over and over again as a barrier is the turnaround time, because by the time that you get the results back you could have likely spread the virus to several others.”
Wrapping up the conversation, Webb said there was a throughline in the issues raised: the failure of systems and of politicians to listen to medical science.
“In this conversation, I feel we all recognize that we’re not talking about politics, we’re talking about science and we’re talking about systems, we’re talking about how they align, how they all come together and how they fail,” he said. “I think so much of our work is spending time trying to de-politicize this, which is really a systematic conceptual failure.”
Webb then promised to continue the conversation during the campaign.
Webb will face off against Republican candidate Bob Good on Nov. 3.