Every crisis presents an opportunity to learn, improve our methods, and avoid the next crisis. In health research and care, the benefits can include millions of lives.
In the United States, COVID-19 has killed one in 500 people, a heartbreaking toll that in September overtook a U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate of Americans who died during the 1918 flu pandemic.
What have we learned?
For starters, we have learned how to develop, test, and deploy safe and effective vaccines that can target the specific structures of a coronavirus. We have learned how to reduce transmission through proven techniques such as physical distancing and wearing masks. We have also learned strategies — and their limitations — for how to best achieve cooperation with such measures and health policies for the public good.
At Women’s Health Research at Yale, we moved quickly in response to COVID-19, launching a study with Dr. Akiko Iwasaki identifying sex differences in how the body’s immune system reacts to the virus, helping to explain the mechanisms by which men are more likely to die from the disease. Another WHRY study addresses the ways in which frontline health care workers might better equip themselves to cope with the many stressors they face in treating COVID-19 patients. And, this time, our unique study is taking into account the preexisting stressors often linked to racial, ethnic, and gender identities.
The pandemic is not over, and we still have much to learn about “long COVID-19” symptoms and how various populations react to the disease differently. But even as we continue to grapple with the many questions raised by this virus, the pandemic represents an even broader opportunity to change science so that we better address the health needs of everyone.
COVID-19 is itself an opportunistic disease, attacking people who are already vulnerable because of their existing health conditions, such as obesity, immune deficiency, cancer, and heart disease. It has ravaged overburdened and under-resourced communities, disproportionately comprised of people of color. Pregnant and lactating people did not immediately have the answers they required about the specific dangers of COVID-19 and the safety of vaccines. This shows us that we need to learn more about the underlying conditions that leave too many vulnerable to sickness and study our differences so that we can target individual prevention and treatment strategies to individual needs.
That’s why WHRY exists. Our center fills wide knowledge gaps concerning the health of women and differences between and among women and men. We work with Yale’s health policy lab Elevate to overcome disparities that disproportionately sicken and strain lower-income individuals. We forge collaborations and share knowledge with health professionals and the communities we serve so that people have the best available answers before making vital health decisions.
The pandemic has once again exposed the challenges we face to improve health research and practice to achieve a better life for all. Now we just need to take advantage of this pivotal opportunity.