Dear Medical College of Georgia Friends,

Dr. Rebecca DeCarlo honored by President Trump for COVID-19 work

The CDC calls contact tracing a core disease control measure used by public health departments for decades and a key strategy today in preventing the further spread of COVID-19. It’s basically what it sounds like, which is working to identify those you have been in close contact with while you were considered infectious with a virus like SARS-CoV-2, then reaching out to those individuals with information, education and support about how to take care of themselves and others. The CDC also says it takes special skills and training to do this, like understanding patient confidentiality and medical terms and principles, which makes medical students great choices for this important work. We talked the early part of this month about how our now 2020 graduate Dr. Rebecca DeCarlo was doing just that by helping organize contact tracing in coastal regions of our state.

MCG graduate the lone medical student honored at the White House

I am beyond pleased to share now that this past Friday President Trump and the First Lady welcomed Rebecca and around 20 recent graduates from around the country to the White House for a special commencement ceremony, since they had missed their actual one because of COVID-19, and to thank them for their response to the fight against this infection that had also disrupted their education. I must add that Rebecca was the only medical student honored at this prestigious gathering and that Rebecca’s parents, Barry and Lisa DeCarlo, were with her, which was particularly neat because family and friends could not join our seniors this year for traditional senior celebrations.  Rebecca said it was an unbelievable and humbling experience to be honored in our nation’s capital. I would use the same words to describe the honor it is to educate physicians like her here at MCG. I must thank Monty Philpot, director of federal relations at AU, for enabling this opportunity for Rebecca and for MCG. I thank as well Dr. T. Wayne Rentz, a 1972 MCG graduate who is associate dean for the Southeast Campus, based in Savannah and Brunswick, for his leadership and mentorship of Rebecca, who spent her last two years of medical school in this beautiful part of our state. I also thank Dr. Kathryn Martin, associate dean for regional campus coordination, who has worked extensively in public health in our state, including serving as president of the Georgia Public Health Association, for her great relationships with and knowledge about this important front line.   More examples of how the best among us become even better when the going gets tough.

Students Idris Ali Amghaiab, Susan Brands share COVID-19 prevention info with the state

You know Rebecca, who will start her neurosurgery training in a few weeks in Charlotte, is also an artist, which is another cool thing about our students. Who would think they had the time never mind the energy to do more than be medical students. But they perform amazingly on many stages. We just found out our Class of 2023 president Idris Ali Amghaiab and Class of 2021 president Susan Brands are natural television stars. Like so many of our students who have taken up the fight against COVID-19, these two shared important messages about prevention in two public service announcements that went out to Georgia television stations. Great job Idris and Susan, and another thanks here to Tim Johnson, AU senior video producer, for the skill and commitment he brings to all these projects. Let me also thank Dr. Vincent Robinson, president of the Faculty Senate, for encouraging us to continue to educate the public on this ongoing concern. That is definitely part of the job — and privilege — of Georgia’s only public medical school.

Dr. Justin Xavier Moore helps paint a picture of COVID’s impact on Georgians While we are living through this pandemic, epidemiologists — defined as medical experts in the incidence, distribution and control of diseases — are definitely frontline and busy. Dr. Justin Xavier Moore and his colleagues in our Division of Epidemiology, took a look at the impact of COVID-19 on different areas of our expansive and largely rural state in the Journal of the American College of Emergency Physicians. They found that while metropolitan Atlanta, home to about 6 million, has the overall highest number of confirmed cases, it was our friends in Albany and more rural southwest Georgia, that had the highest biweekly increases in incidence. They also had the highest death rates. In counties with more than 10 cases, death rates were highest in the southwest rural Georgia counties of Randolph, Terrell, Early and Dougherty. Those counties with the highest death rates also had a higher proportion of blacks and adults over age 60 earning less than $20,000 annually than counties with lower death rates. Please note that altogether Georgia has nearly 11 million people, with about 30% of residents being black and about 14% age 65 and older, both particularly vulnerable populations for this infection.

Southwest Georgia hardest hit; fewer ICU beds and doctors a multiplier

Our friends in these counties also have fewer ICU beds per 100,000 population and a lower number of primary care physicians, Dr. Moore reports. “It is likely that mortality rates are higher in rural Georgia communities due to delays in treatment and care because of the need to transport rural patients to other centers with available ICU beds and/or ventilators,” they write. Dr. Moore and his colleagues note that hospital critical care capacity is the most important medical factor for preventing deaths from this virus. Hopefully having this information that clearly correlates low numbers of these beds, as well as low numbers of physicians and other factors with loss of life, will enable leaders to develop strategies to address them. We hope so, Dr. Moore and thank you and your colleagues Dr. Steven Coughlin, interim division chief for epidemiology, Dr. Varghese George, chair of the Department of Population Health Sciences, and Dr. Marvin Langston, from the Division of Research at Kaiser Permanente of Northern California, for so distinctly putting these facts out there.

Dr. Martha Tingen helps roll out suicide prevention plan for Georgia

Suicide, like heart disease and cancer, already is a top killer in our state and nation. At the moment, the CDC says it is the number 10 killer in Georgia and the leading cause of death for those 10-14. And it could get worse. Experts tell us the stress, uncertainty and isolation of COVID-19 is also affecting our mental health with a recent Kaiser Family Foundation survey indicating that about half of us report our mental health is being hurt and 19% saying the impact is major, percentages concerning on their face never mind the potential they have of driving suicide rates up. But suicide was already a red flag for our state. We told you about a year ago, well before we were thinking of the ravages of coronavirus, that Dr. Martha Tingen, associate director for cancer prevention, control and population health at the Georgia Cancer Center, was among a handpicked group who would develop the Georgia 2020-2025 Suicide Prevention Plan for the Georgia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities. In fact, she chaired the Prevention and Intervention Committee. Dr. Tingen rightly says she is proud of this updated plan that, much like Dr. Moore’s great information about COVID-19’s impact on Georgia, is intended to enable an accurate measure of current suicide prevention efforts in our state and what needs to be done. I want to thank Dr. Tingen for the commitment, experience and passion she brought to this project and to everything she touches. We are all the better for it. 

Dr. Jennifer Sullivan named interim dean of The Graduate School

We end today with Dr. Jennifer Sullivan, who also never shies away from a challenge. In the case of this pharmacologist and physiologist in our Department of Physiology, her research pursuits include understanding gender differences in hypertension. She has been with us 20 years now, starting as a postdoctoral fellow in the Vascular Biology Center after finishing her PhD at Albany Medical College. She joined the faculty right after her fellowship and she has had a driven path. She was recently appointed to the editorial board of the American Heart Association Journal Hypertension, is an editorial board member for others like Biology of Sex Differences and the American Journal of Hypertension and associate editor of the American Journal of Physiology: Renal Physiology. She is a standing member of the National Institutes of Health/National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute Hypertension and Microcirculation Study Section. She has helped organize national research conferences and urged us all to join the AHA and “Go Red” for women. I am pleased to share that effective July 1, Dr. Sullivan will become interim dean of The Graduate School. She is no stranger to this school where she has chaired Graduate Research Day and serves as program director for the first-year biomedical PhD Program. She also serves on the Graduate Council, which helps run the school and advise the dean, and on the school’s Recruitment and Admissions Committee. She also has been advisor to a long, growing and successful list of postdoctoral fellows and graduate students. Congratulations Jennifer Sullivan. You are a natural for this. I want to thank Dr. Mitch Watsky, a vision scientist who will be refocusing full attention to his science, for his seven years of service as dean and for his support of MCG.

Please continue to take good care out there.

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