Since the COVID-19 pandemic took America by storm in March 2020, Meharry Medical College President and CEO Dr. James Hildreth and his staff have been working tirelessly on the frontlines, researching the COVID-19 virus while providing resources to combat it ranging from instituting a testing site on the HBCU’s campus in Nashville to conducting vaccine trials. In between additional duties as part of Nashville Mayor John Cooper’s coronavirus task force and being named a member of President Biden’s COVID-19 Health Equity Task Force, Hildreth took time out of his rigorous schedule to speak with Sounds Like Nashville about Meharry’s important role in supporting minority communities in the city, how vaccines work, what gives him hope during these challenging times and much more.
SLN: When you started hearing about this virus, when did you know that this was going to be a serious, life-changing thing?
Hildreth: When I started reading the reports from China about the fact that individuals with chronic diseases were faring so poorly — heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes — you realize that those are conditions that are quite common in minority communities here. A lot of us were holding our breath because we were afraid that it would be devastating for some communities in our country, and that turned out to be the case. Meharry, we exist to try to eliminate some of those disparities. We thought it was very important that we step up and do our part. I think by early March or so we were in that mode of thinking, and that’s when we started to focus on this.
The first thing that we thought we should do is we wanted to make sure that COVID-19 testing, which is the only way to protect lives is to know where the virus is, to make the invisible enemy visible. We realized that for people who had insurance who were being taken care of by, we affectionately call them the big three, Vanderbilt, HCA and St. Thomas, that their patient panels were being evaluated for COVID-19. We thought it very important for Meharry to set up a testing capability to make sure that people who don’t have insurance or don’t have a place to go that they can get tested. We got our system set up, but we couldn’t get supplies. You might recall that early on in this that was a national problem, and we had the same problem. But thankfully we became part of the city’s testing effort and we’ve been involved with the city from the beginning.
Take me inside what a typical day looks like for you working on this virus. What did life look like for you at the beginning of this pandemic and how has it evolved?
I’m trying to do a number of things all at once and that’s always a challenge, but that’s always true as well. Clearly this is the challenge of a lifetime, at least I hope it’s the challenge of a lifetime and we don’t have to deal with something like this for some time to come. The primary focus has been for the last several months COVID-19, and I try to address it from another point of view. One is as a member of the mayor’s task force, my assignment has been to try to make the science accessible, as I’ve been studying viruses for 40 some years and doing research on them and relate to public health and immunology. I’m trying to spend time to make sure that I’m looking at the primary sources where the data is being generated so I can have some helpful things to offer to the people. Part of that is I believe that if people understand the science, this becomes less intimidating, that we can find a way to get through it and understand why we’re being asked to do what we’re doing. So there’s a lot of time spent on that. We still have students to train. We still have 800 and some students that are learning medicine, dentistry, research and public health, so there’s a lot of things and conversations about how do we do that safely? How do we make sure that the students are getting what they need, but in the context of being aware of COVID-19? Then we’re still seeing patients in our clinics, dental clinics and medical clinics, so we got to make sure that we can do that protecting the patients and the staff, so there are lots of conversations and meetings about that.
I’m still an active researcher, so part of my days, usually the end of the day between 1 a.m. and 2 a.m., I’m focused on ‘how do we move the science forward that we’re trying to do?’ We’ve identified two potential therapeutics for COVID-19 and we’re trying to get those to the place where human studies would be possible. In a typical day, I’ve touched on all of those things, trying to stay current with the science, being involved with my leadership team in terms of the students and clinics, and then also trying to keep my fingers in the research. That’s why the institution exists. To me, there’s nothing more exciting than having a chance to do what you do and have it be so impactful. That’s a pretty good feeling.
You were recently invited to join President Biden’s COVID-19 Health Equity Task Force. Can you share your thoughts on joining such an important team?
I am honored to be chosen by President Biden as a member of the COVID-19 Health Equity Task Force. We are facing one of the largest challenges in the history of our nation. COVID-19 has killed hundreds of thousands of Americans, and if adequate steps are not taken, this number will continue to grow. As we have seen, COVID-19 does not discriminate, it does not respect borders, and it does not behave according to our timelines. The virus has had the largest impact on our communities of color, among Black and brown Americans with underlying health conditions. Without our immediate attention and a national, organized effort to fight this virus, we will be dealing with its impact for years to come. As the President of a historically Black medical school that was founded to eradicate health disparities between majority and minority communities, this work is a focus for me and my institution. I am committed to working with our national leadership to develop cohesive plans that will address these silent killers – illnesses like COVID-19 that impact our most vulnerable populations at alarming rates. We must address the pandemic together. I am confident that President Biden’s heightened focus on the pandemic will accelerate testing, treatment and vaccinations nationwide — proven strategies that will work to mitigate the virus and protect our people. I look forward to working with my esteemed colleagues on the Task Force to restore health, wellbeing and stability to all of America.
What is that process like making science accessible for the public, especially with something like this virus?
For me, it comes down to taking a complex system or problem and breaking it down into pieces or parts that people can digest or understand. Some of it is also trying to find an analogy to something that we all understand or experience every day as a way to understand the context, because we’re talking about a virus which we can’t see, infecting cells which we can’t see. But in a lot of ways, the things involved in that are rather similar to things that we see and do every day. My challenge is to try to find a way to visualize or compartmentalize or dissect these complex things in a way that people can say, ‘okay, I kind of get that,’ and it’s not easy. I don’t always do a great job of it, but that’s my strategy is ‘can I find something of a shared experience or shared knowledge we all have as a way to paint a picture of what’s happening at the molecular level with the virus?’
The thing that I think got people’s attention was the way I explain how this pandemic virus is different from the other two that have happened in this century. This is our third coronavirus pandemic. The first one was in 2003 SARS, and in fact, the virus that causes COVID-19 is called SARS-CoV-2 because it’s a severe acute respiratory syndrome virus, but it’s a new version of it. Then in 2012, there was the Mid-Eastern strain of coronavirus [MERS] that caused a small pandemic. But the difference is that those two viruses required you to have interactions with an animal to get the virus; these small, handheld cats in the case of SARS, camels in the case of MERS. The difference is that we are responsible for transmitting the virus to each other, and in science, we call that vectors. The vectors for SARS were cats and for MERS were camels. In this case, we are the vector as we’re spreading it to each other, and when viruses adopt to human spread, that’s when things get really dangerous and you get this global pandemic.
What’s the difference between the therapeutics you’re working on and the vaccine?
Vaccines would be the ultimate solution to our problem because what vaccines do is they confer immunity to us against certain things, and some of them work exceptionally well. For example, the measles rubella vaccine that you take as a child, protection for life. It’s wonderful. Our other vaccines like influenza, you have to take them every year because the protection doesn’t last very long. But they all have in common the goal of preparing your system so that the next time you see a virus, your immune system can eliminate it and it’s not going to be a threat to you. So vaccines are preventative, they should keep you from getting the disease in the first place. Therapeutics are useful if you do get the virus and get disease; can we treat the infection and cure you that way? So the vaccine would put up a wall, so to speak, to keep the virus out, the therapeutic is to try to treat the virus infection once it happens.
What’s not being covered in the news that you think is important for people to know?
There’s a lot going on that we should be focused on. When those three airplanes were responsible for just under 3,000 people dying September 11, 2001, our whole country came together and were focused on that. And somehow with [more than 450,000] people dead from this virus, we don’t seem to be able to put politics aside or ideologies aside because to me, the focus should be on saving as many lives as possible, and I don’t think that conversation necessarily is happening of ‘why is this acceptable?’ It almost seems like we’re complacent now that people are dying. How many people have to die before we decide ‘we got to really do something?’ There are things that can be done to lower the number of people who will die, and at the end of the day to me, that should be our first goal is to keep as many people from dying from this as possible.
What keeps you hopeful during these times?
I think what does that for me, just witnessing random acts of kindness and grace that people show for each other and reading about how communities come together to celebrate the people on the front lines, who are our heroes, the nurses, the physicians, everyday people who are trying to do their best in a terrible situation, some who’ve stepped up to make sure that people who have lost their jobs have food on their tables. Those stories make me hopeful that we are who we say we are, in spite of witnessing what we’re witnessing every day. All around us, there are these acts of kindness and grace that gets me. That’s where my hope comes from.
For more information on Meharry Medical College’s response to COVID-19, visit the website.