Field notes from
Dr. McDonough

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Dear Colleagues,

Dr. Anne McDonough, Associate Director of OSHEM’s Occupational Health Services division and the COVID-19 Response Team Public Health Lead, recently returned from deployment with the U.S. Navy Reserve where she aided in the treatment of service members with COVID-19 in Guam. We are happy to have her back home and are so proud of the work she did while she was away.

Dr. McDonough has taken a moment to share her first-hand knowledge of the disease and its prevention. Her experiences, detailed below, can be a lesson and example for all of us. 

We thank her for her service. Join us in welcoming her back! 

COVID-19 Response Team 

For those of you who did not know, beginning April 19th, I was in Guam with the U.S. Navy. I went with a group to set up a field hospital and was involved in the care of the sailors from the USS Theodore Roosevelt. They say going away really shows the value of home, and in this case it holds true – It is good to be back home at the Smithsonian.

While in Guam, we were providing health care, COVID-19 testing, and symptom tracking to over 1,000 COVID-positive people every day. There were over 90 healthcare workers who spent eight hours a day in “hurricane shelter” like accommodations laughing, crying, counseling, and encouraging each other as we worked. We used recommended PPE, practiced social distancing, had the sailors wear face coverings, and washed our hands often. None of the healthcare providers became symptomatic or tested positive.

I wanted to share this with the Smithsonian community because it is a first-hand account that the safety precautions we took worked. COVID-19 is to be respected but not feared. These precautions were not comfortable – especially in the heat and humidity, but they protected us day in and day out. Contrast this with the initial days of the COVID-19 outbreak where COVID spread so quickly and the numbers of new cases were doubling every few days.

The population of Guam is less than 200,000. Every day while I worked or ran errands, I could see that masking compliance was quite good, and people were respectful about distancing. They have a strong public health sector, a solid reopening plan, but limited ICU and hospital resources. Guam’s pattern of infections is clearer than what we see in the larger and more mobile communities of the continental U.S. The low number of intermittent cases demonstrates the restrictions they have in place are working. Where there are clusters of cases and evidence of community spread, a common factor was loss of focus on preventing the spread of the illness. Even with precautions, the risk still exists, but those who are not practicing safe socialization are going to be at much higher risk of contracting COVID-19.

Each of us has an important part to play in doing our best to protect each other, our community, and our families while COVID-19 is still spreading. There will always be some risk – for instance, the governor of Guam tested positive this week – but as we avoid hotspots, use PPE and CPE, and look out for each other by taking a few steps back, we can reduce that risk. We can use Guam, where overall community spread is low, as an example. 

So, thank you for reporting positive cases to the Smithsonian which allows our OHS team to perform contact tracing and warn others of their increased risk without sacrificing privacy. Thank you for being flexible with schedules, shifts, and telework to allow us to continue our mission until the risk for our essential employees decreases. Thank you for properly wearing face coverings, practicing social distancing, mindfully cleaning, and staying home while ill – it protects everyone. 

Be encouraged, we may appear to be our own little island within the greater community, but if we are diligent, we will reap the benefits as we run this marathon. 

Be safe and well, 

Anne McDonough MD MPH 
Public Health Officer, SI COVID-19 Response 
Associate Director Occupational Health Services, OSHEM 

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