Dr. James E.K. Hildreth, Meharry Medical College President


“National strategy” needed to defeat virus

By Reginald Stuart

NASHVILLE, TN — America needs a “national strategy” to combat and mitigate Coronavirus, the deadly airborne disease that is sweeping the globe at a tornado pace and leaving countless people in its tracks, said Dr. James E.K. Hildreth, nationally known medical scientist and president of Nashville’s Meharry Medical College.

“We are giving the virus to each other,” said Dr. Hildreth, who has spent more than three decades researching fast moving, widespread virus outbreaks, including the HIV and Ebola virus. “We (humans) are the vector for the virus,” he said, explaining people are passing the COVID-19 virus (as it is called in the health community) to other people just by being in their presence and breathing on others.

“We’re really not out of the woods unless we have a national strategy,” said, Dr. Hildreth, 63, who became chief executive of Meharry nearly five years “All of us have to be on the same page,” Dr. Hildreth said, citing the myriad opinions emanating from the White House as its stresses its desire to get back “to normal” and back to work rekindle the economy, despite the health crisis looming across the country. 

Dr. Hildreth said the nation had 3,400 commercial airline flights a day and 2.7 million people flying from place to place. “Keep in mind this started with one person,” he said. Today, “We have no idea what the peak (of the virus) will be” nor where it will strike next.

“We have to collectively decide ‘unless we all do it, we’re going to be back where we started,” said Dr. Hildreth, repeating his call for a “national strategy.”

By mid-week, the federal government says more than 1,500 people in the U.S. have died from the virus that began sweeping through the nation in January. More than 100,000 people have been infected by the airborne disease symbolized by stubborn dry coughs, chronic breathing pains and fever. Worldwide, thousands more have died of COVID-19 and hundreds of thousands have been infected with the deadly virus, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). 

Speaking from the perspective of a veteran medical scientist/physician, Dr. Hildreth said the nation’s response to the COVID-19 health crisis is getting better, although it is less than needed as some top political leaders in big states –like California, Washington and Virginia and Maryland– and cities—like Washington, D.C., Nashville, New York City and New Orleans– have called for and imposed drastic public isolation measures to mitigate the spread of the disease. Restaurants, public parks, movies, shopping centers, colleges and schools at all levels have been closed. Hotels from coast to coast are nearly empty. People are take heed to isolate themselves.

The good these states and cities are doing to fight COVID-19 is undermined however, Dr. Hildreth said, by young people ignoring the public health appeals and key political leaders asserting the health alert is ruining the nation’s economy. With President Trump leading the advocates for loosening the health alarm cuts, economy advocates are saying the Christian Easter season would be an ideal time for life in America to get back to normal.

The suggestions came from the President late last week as the Department of Labor said U.S. unemployment claims had risen to 3.3 million and Congress was putting the final stamp of approval on the 2 trillion dollars emergency economic bill, the Corona Virus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act. The act puts funds in the hands of all taxpayers, small and large companies to help them weather tough times during the health crisis.

Dr. Hildreth, who hopes Meharry will get some of the federal aid to help his institution which has suffered financially due to the COVID-19 crisis, acknowledges the federal aid, yet quickly adds the aid can’t eradicate the virus.  

“Dr. Fauci says we don’t set the time line,” said Dr. Hildreth, referring to Dr. Robert Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. “The virus will,” saying he shares the same thinking of the nation’s top virus medical scientist.

Dr. Hildreth said based on current tracking trends of COVID-19, he thinks the nation faces two to three more months of tough sledding, if the public fully embraces the mitigation steps he and others in the medical and health community are advocating. A lot will depend on how the federal government responds in appeals from health leaders and state and local government officials.

“All of us are scrambling,” said. Dr. Hildreth, as he ticked off a headline list of the impact of COVID-19 on his historic medical school. “It has really been disruptive,” he said, noting Meharry had to shut down its dental school, move many medical school classes to online, deal with Meharry employees who have been infected by COVID-19 (at least three known cases) and lend help to the Nashville Public Health Service to answer calls for assistance. It also has two medical science investigators working with colleagues from nearby Tennessee State University on testing some compounds that worked in treating the E-boli virus to see if they can work in treating COVID-19.

The Corona virus “is marching through” America at a stunning pace, said Dr. Hildreth, making tens of thousands infested. Killing more than a thousand people since invading early this year.  “The way you change that is with vaccines,” he said.

“It has never been experienced before” Dr. Hildreth said, explaining decades have passed since a disease of this magnitude (the 1918 Spanish flu) struck. Most people living today were not alive then. “For all of us, this is a new reality,” he said.  

While joining the chorus of health care professionals and advocates in pushing for more focused COVID-19 action by the nation’s leaders, Dr. Hildreth echoed other health care peers in strongly urging the public to take several, common steps to help mitigate the spread of the disease.

Dr. Hildreth says one thing he worries about in the appeals to help mitigate the spread of the deadly virus is “many people who get it get it from people who are positive but do not show symptoms. That’s especially true for young people who were told in the early weeks of the disease that it focused on older people. Not true, medical scientists are finding as the death rates among younger people and youngsters keep climbing with other age groups “My purpose is to dispel the myth that young people won’t get that (COVD-19),” he said. “That’s not true.”