Are we ready for another pandemic? Health officials share lessons learned one year into COVID-19

MEMPHIS, Tenn. — More than a year into the pandemic, multiple vaccines are available for COVID-19.

There are also variants of the virus that are proving to be more contagious.

Shelby County health professionals said they’ve learned a lot in the past year, and doctors said we have to prepared now for the next pandemic.

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“We don’t want to see this again, and if it does come again we want to handle it differently,” said Dr. Jon McCullers, Le Bonheur Children’s hospital pediatrician-in-chief.

Lakesha Flynn is a nurse manager at Baptist Memorial Hospital and her team cared for the very first COVID-19 patient in Shelby County.

“Right now we’re facing a lot of nurses with fatigue. They’re tired. They need a break,” she said.

Flynn’s unit quickly transitioned into the hospital’s COVID floor.

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Active cases jumped from a few dozen at the start of the pandemic to almost 90,000 right now in Shelby County.

“They’re saying 2020 was the year of the nurse, and it definitely was our year,” said Flynn. “We definitely learned a lot about how we’re valued in the community, and we definitely appreciate it.”

It’s a value Flynn said wasn’t always acknowledged before the virus hit. In fact, the community started 2020 with a nursing shortage. Flynn said they learned how to meet the demand with nurses picking up extra shifts.

“Our nurses have a soldier mentality, and we definitely know how to make it through certain trials. that’s how we’ve done it. we just soldiered together,” she said.

But some of the lessons learned one year into this pandemic weren’t medical.

Flynn said they were personal.

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“I made sure my team was educated on just staying safe. You gotta stay safe for your patients, so you may have to miss that social gathering, that Christmas dinner with your family just to prevent you from being taken out of the equation to take care of patients,” said Flynn.

While Flynn worked behind the scenes, Dr. McCullers has become a familiar face during the pandemic.

He juggles several titles, but he’s best known as the pediatrician-in-chief at Le Bonheur, a member of the joint COVID-19 task force and as a pandemic expert.

“I could write a book on the stuff we could have done better. We did great, but there are a lot of stuff that I think next time around maybe we’ll do better, maybe we won’t and we’ll have to see,” said Dr. McCullers.

He said cooperation from all levels of government, area hospitals and medical professionals was key to developing prevention strategies and guidelines.

But what can we do to be prepared for the next pandemic?

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“Funding surveillance - that’s one of the biggest things. Understanding where these viruses are, when they come in. you know we had to invest the capacity to test for the virus at UT because no one could test for it, so we need to have that in place before the next pandemic,” said McCullers. “We need to be watching viruses as they come out of places like china and others, and we need to be ready for anything that comes out and have systems in place to be able to detect it and deal with it.”

These systems are now being challenged again as new variants mutate with unknown capabilities.

“If they can reinfect people who have been infected or vaccinated, you know we’re not back to square one, but we’ve taken several steps back, so we really have to continue to get our case numbers down so that variant has less chance to spread, become dominate and cause another surge,” said McCullers.

McCuller said there has to be more funding for pandemics at a national level as well.

Before COVID-19, he said there was a pandemic plan for influenza in the 2000s, but it hadn’t been a priority.

He said he’s hopeful that will change after this global pandemic.

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