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Michele Cohen Marill


Want a faster track to a Covid-19 vaccine? Another trial is about to begin in Atlanta.

Novavax covid-19 vaccine trials atlanta
A nurse in the Covid unit at a Florida hospital prepares to inoculate a frontline caregiver with the Moderna Covid-19 vaccine. Phase 3 trials for another version, from Novavax, will start in Atlanta after Christmas.

Photograph by Joe Raedle/Getty Images

As confirmed Covid-19 cases surged toward the half-million mark in Georgia, the first 5,850 doses of the Pfizer vaccine arrived in Savannah on December 14 like a beachhead in the battle against disease. Within days, more healthcare workers and long-term care residents in Atlanta will roll up their sleeves and get some protection. It’s the beginning of the end of the pandemic.

While that’s great news, the rest of us are in for a wait. Even with the emergency authorization of a second vaccine from the pharmaceutical company Moderna, it will take months before the average Atlantan has easy access to a Covid-19 vaccine. But there is a way to get a shot at a new vaccine before almost anyone else—all in the name of science.

Next week, Emory University and Morehouse School of Medicine are expected to begin enrolling participants in a Phase 3 trial of a vaccine produced by Maryland-based Novavax. Since it’s a study, there’s a caveat: Not everyone will get the actual vaccine. But the odds are pretty good. Instead of a one-to-one match between people who got vaccine and those who got a placebo, or saline shot, in previous vaccine trials, the Novavax ratio will be two-to-one. Participants have a 67% chance of getting the vaccine.

“Being in the vaccine trial might be a faster way to actually get a real vaccine,” says Lilly Immergluck, a pediatrician and infectious disease expert who is principal investigator for the trial site at Morehouse School of Medicine, where she is also a professor.

Having different versions of a vaccine has been the plan all along. Even with their ambitious efforts, Pfizer and Moderna likely won’t produce enough to vaccinate the entire country in the next six months or so. Under Operation Warp Speed, the US government funded 200 million doses of the Moderna vaccine, or enough for 100 million people to receive the two-dose regimen. The program purchased 100 million doses of the Pfizer vaccine, which also requires two-doses, so that covers another 50 million people. There are about 330 million people in the US.

“We need these other products to ensure we have an adequate supply for whoever wants them over the long-term,” as well as for global supply, says Colleen Kelley, an infectious disease physician and principal investigator at Emory’s Ponce De Leon Center/Grady Clinic study site.

Here is some information to help you decide if joining the vaccine trial is right for you:

Who is eligible to sign up? The Novavax trial is open to adults 18 and older who are “at substantial risk of exposure and infection with SARS-CoV-2,” the virus that causes Covid-19. That includes people who are unable to work from home. Novavax also seeks to include people of color, older adults, and people with stable chronic medical conditions—populations that have had higher rates of Covid-19 infection or more severe disease and are most likely to benefit from the vaccine. People who are not eligible include those who are immunosuppressed or take medicines that lower their immune function; women who are pregnant (or may become pregnant) or breastfeeding; and people who have medical conditions that aren’t well-controlled. Nationwide, 30,000 people will enroll at 115 sites.

What’s in the vaccine? Novavax uses advanced technology to produce nanoparticles of the protein found in the outer spike of the coronavirus, turning moth cells into a manufacturing site for the very tiny particles. Still, this vaccine is similar to other products on the market (such as the hepatitis B vaccine) that use virus proteins to stimulate the body’s immune defenses. (Pfizer and Moderna use a synthetic messenger RNA that causes the body’s own cells to create the protein.) Novavax adds an adjuvant, or a chemical that enhances the immune effects.

Is it safe? Early tests showed that the vaccine produced a strong immune response without causing serious side effects. People who have allergies to any of the vaccine components or who have a history of severe allergic reactions after vaccination should not take the vaccine.

What are the requirements? The study lasts two years, and Novavax expects participants to return at intervals to get the second dose and to have blood drawn to test for immune response. Participants receive a kit to take saliva samples for testing if they develop symptoms of Covid. The investigators realize that it’s a bit complicated to run a clinical trial while an authorized vaccine is publicly available. “There’s a provision in the Novavax protocol that says any participant can leave the trial if they choose, if an effective, [authorized] vaccine becomes available to them,” says Kelley, who is an associate professor of medicine at Emory. Participants will not know if they got the placebo or vaccine, unless the trial ends early because of clear evidence of effectiveness. Those who got the placebo might then be offered the vaccine, although all of the participants will still be asked to continue returning for the two-year period of study assessments.

How do I sign up? The main portal for registering is through the Covid-19 Prevention Network. Morehouse also has a toll-free number (888-788-0644) to provide information about clinical trials or other Covid concerns. “We want to be a trusted source of information if people have questions about Covid,” says Immergluck. Morehouse also has a mobile research unit that will make enrollment and participation easier in rural areas or communities in which people are less likely to access clinical trials, she says.

How easily can COVID-19 spread in a classroom?

On the first day of the second week of school in Cherokee County, a teacher looked out at her class and noticed that one boy wasn’t taking notes. As she walked over to see if he needed help, he clutched his head. He told her he had a throbbing headache.

Headache is a common symptom of Covid-19, so she quickly sent him to the school nurse. A few minutes later, he was back in the classroom. He didn’t have a fever, the nurse said, and the boy didn’t want to call his mother to take him home. (Just 43 percent of diagnosed COVID-19 patients report having a fever, according to a study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.)

The boy stayed in the classroom. He didn’t wear a mask. Mask-wearing is encouraged but not required for students in Cherokee County, where several high schools have been temporarily shut down and more than 2,000 students have been quarantined. The teacher, who wore a mask, could only keep her distance and hope for the best.

School nurses follow their professional judgment, according to Barbara Jacoby, chief communications officer for the Cherokee County School District, who responded by email. “Our school nurses, who all are RNs or LPNs, are assessing student symptoms and making the determination on whether to send students home. They are medical professionals and very familiar with the symptoms of COVID-19,” she said.

But the incident reveals new tension in a usually festive rite of passage. This year, “back to school” brings more apprehension than excitement. “Every day, kids are either missing from class or they’re coming up to me and other teachers saying they don’t feel good,” said the Cherokee County teacher, who asked not to be identified.

Cherokee schools opened on August 3, putting them at the vanguard of in-person education in the era of COVID-19. (About a quarter of Cherokee students chose to enroll in virtual learning.) “We are continuously reviewing our protocols to determine additional improvements,” Jacoby said, noting that teachers have been provided face shields in addition to masks, if they want them. In an act of transparency, the district posts weekly COVID case counts per school, and it has trained teams of custodians in each school on how to properly disinfect surfaces.

As that county’s experience already demonstrates, schools will have to open “with a tremendous amount of precautions,” says Marybeth Sexton, a former high school biology teacher who is now an infectious disease physician and assistant professor at Emory University School of Medicine. “The school day won’t look like it normally does if it’s done safely.”

Administrators, teachers, parents, and students all agree there is no perfect solution, but how can they measure the risk of returning to school? The coronavirus spreads through droplets and possibly smaller aerosols when people talk, sing, cough, or sneeze, and one published report found it spread from recirculating air in a restaurant.  But how do those dangers apply in a classroom?

From a risk perspective, a school classroom is essentially a type of public gathering. Joshua Weitz, a professor of biological sciences at Georgia Tech, created an interactive online tool to help people gauge the risk of gatherings of different sizes, based on the most recent COVID stats by county. It takes into account an inherent undercount in the official state and county data. CDC conducted serology studies across the country—looking for antibodies that show whether someone has been infected with COVID—and estimated that the number of actual cases is about 10 times greater than the number reported. Weitz factors that into his risk assessment. (A user can lower the multiple to five if the county has a robust testing program. A high positivity rate may indicate that more testing needs to be done.)

In a group of 25—about the size of an average class—the model indicates there’s a 67 percent chance in Cherokee County that at least one person has COVID-19, according to the most recent data. (The odds drop to 42 percent in the more optimistic scenario of five actual cases per reported case.)

Without frequent, widespread, rapid testing, no one knows who that one person is. In schools, hundreds of different interactions take place—on buses, in hallways, in locker rooms, in cafeterias.

Refreshing the indoor air can dilute the virus. But even before the pandemic, studies found schools often have inadequate ventilation; a 2013 study of California elementary schools linked classrooms with poor ventilation to an increase in absence due to illness. In June 2020, the Collaborative for High Performance Schools, an organization that focuses on improving student health and learning through better school buildings, issued a report recommending improved ventilation rates and filtration as a way to improve indoor air quality and reduce the risk of spread of the virus. Some Georgia schools report that they are making changes to their HVAC. For example, Cherokee County is upgrading the air filters in its HVAC system to MERV-13, which are more efficient at filtering particles, says Jacoby, the school system spokesperson.

Opening a window—or, better yet, taking the class outside—makes the environment safer, but transmission from close contact can still occur, Sexton says. Weitz, who is founding director of Georgia Tech’s doctoral program in quantitative biosciences, says, “It’s unfathomable to me that they haven’t imposed mask mandates from the very beginning.”

Masks aren’t perfect, but by blocking the spread of droplets, they may reduce the viral load that individuals are exposed to, says Richard Rothenberg, an epidemiologist and Regent’s Professor of public health at Georgia State University. “Viral load is related to severity of illness,” he says.

As Cherokee County School Superintendent Brian Hightower stated when the system closed Etowah High School just eight days after opening: “As your Superintendent, I wear a mask whenever I cannot social distance. We know all parents do not believe the scientific research that indicates masks are beneficial, but I believe it and see masks as an important measure to help us keep schools open.”

Phase 3 COVID-19 vaccine trials start at Emory, giving Atlantans a potential shot at immunity

COVID-19 phase 3 vaccine trials AtlantaNews about the pandemic has been relentlessly bad, but there’s reason for hope. Last week, scientists reported that the first COVID-19 vaccine trial in humans showed an immune response similar to the one found in people who recovered from COVID-19 infection—an important first hurdle in the race for a vaccine. Now, a new phase begins, and Atlantans can volunteer for the study that will ultimately show whether or not this vaccine will help combat the pandemic.

Forty-five healthy adults took that first shot (and a second one a month later), helping researchers figure out which of three dosing levels triggers neutralizing antibodies (proteins produced by the immune system that help fight off infection) with the least side effects. The vaccine was developed by Massachusetts-based biotech company Moderna Therapeutics and the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

Creating a vaccine usually takes years—or even a decade or longer—but this timeline is historically fast. In the spring, the first trial, known as Phase 1, expanded to include older adults, and Phase 2 enrolled 600 people, split between those 18 to 55 years old and older adults. Results of those studies haven’t yet been reported.

Emory University, one of only two sites for early tests of the Moderna vaccine, is now looking for adults of all ages to enroll in Phase 3—the last stage required before a vaccine can receive approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Some 30,000 people around the country will join the study, which can be accessed through the COVID-19 Prevention Network. Think you want to be one of them? Here is some information that may help you decide. 

Can I get COVID-19 from the vaccine?
No. It doesn’t contain the virus—not even an inactivated form of it. This is a new type of vaccine that uses synthetic genetic material (called messenger RNA) that encodes for the protein in the outer spikes of the coronavirus. The body’s cells make copies of the coronavirus protein, triggering the immune system to mobilize to fight off the intruder. The Phase 1 study showed that everyone who received two doses of the vaccine developed neutralizing antibodies, or antibodies that block infection. The vaccine also produced a T-cell response, immune cells that help coordinate the attack on a pathogen and that hunt and destroy cells infected with the virus.

So, if I join the vaccine trial, will I be protected against COVID-19 infection?
Not necessarily. Half of the people in the trial will receive a placebo (a saline injection)—and when you get the shots, you won’t know whether they are the real thing. “There is a very high likelihood that participants will learn if they have received placebo, but this could be after the study is completed,” Evan Anderson, an infectious disease doctor and principal investigator of the Moderna trial at Emory, told Atlanta via email. “If this vaccine or another vaccine is licensed because it is safe and effective before this study finishes, placebo recipients may be able to receive actual vaccine, but we have not been given a guarantee of this yet from the sponsor [Moderna].”

Even if you get the vaccine—and produce an immune response—it’s not yet clear how protective that will be against SARS-CoV-2 infection (the virus that causes COVID-19) or how long any protection will last. That’s what researchers hope to learn from the Phase 3 trial.

What if I get COVID-19 despite getting the vaccine?
A vaccine that provides even limited protection would be a win—if not for you, for the country and the world. The FDA has said it would consider a vaccine for approval if it reduces infection or severe disease by at least 50 percent. Vaccine expert Paul Offit says a “reasonable goal” would be to create a vaccine that is 70 percent effective in preventing moderate or severe disease. “If we can do that, it’ll keep people out of the hospital and it’ll keep people from dying,” says Offit, director of the Vaccine Education Center at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, who is not involved in the trial.

What side effects does the vaccine cause?
Not surprisingly, almost everyone reported pain at the injection site. Most of the 600 participants had flu-like symptoms (headache, chills, fatigue, achiness) after the second dose—mild for most people who got the lowest dose of 50 micrograms and more often moderate in those with the highest dose of 250 micrograms. (Phase 3 contains the middle dose, 100 micrograms, which had more mild reactions than with the highest dose.)

One participant developed hives after receiving a low dose and dropped out of the study, since that could be a sign of an allergic reaction. One person developed a 103-degree fever the day after getting a second high-dose vaccination, along with fatigue, achiness, severe chills, and headache, and later vomited and fainted after becoming lightheaded. The 29-year-old man from Seattle, who told his story to the medical news site STAT, said he felt better within a day and had no more ill effects. Two other people had effects that were considered severe, such as chills, fatigue, or redness at the injection site, but they resolved without any safety concerns, according to the report in the New England Journal of Medicine.

All in all, Phase 1 didn’t reveal any red flags. The large Phase 3 study would be more likely to unearth any rare serious side effects. Offit notes that a safety monitoring board will continuously review data and has the power the pause or stop a study, if necessary.

Can anyone sign up for the vaccine trial?
The trial is open to adults 18 and older, but there are a few exclusions. You can’t participate if you have an immune deficiency, if you’ve ever had SARS-CoV-2 infection (even if you never had symptoms of COVID-19), if you’ve ever had an allergic reaction to a vaccine, or if you are pregnant or breastfeeding.

Researchers are interested in how well the vaccine protects people who are vulnerable to COVID-19, so you can enroll if you have a medical condition (such as diabetes or hypertension) as long as it has been stable for at least three months. You can complete a registration form with the COVID-19 Prevention Network or you can contact one of the three Emory-related sites: Emory Children’s Center at Emory University; Hope Clinic in Decatur; or the Infectious Disease Program at the Ponce de Leon Center.

“There will also be hundreds of sites across the U.S.,” says Nadine Rouphael, interim director of the Hope Clinic and principal investigator for Emory’s Vaccine Treatment Evaluation Unit. “There will be opportunities for participants here within Atlanta, but we’re also trying to engage the community at large within the state, particularly communities that have been hit the hardest with COVID [such as] the African American community and Latinx community.”

What should I expect if I join the study?
You will receive a lengthy document explaining the potential risks of the vaccine trial, and you’ll have a chance to ask questions before you sign the informed consent. You need to agree that, in addition to getting the two shots, you will come for scheduled appointments to check for symptoms and have your blood drawn for testing. The study period may last up to two years.

Sean Doyle, an MD/PhD student at Emory, was one of the first to get a COVID-19 vaccine in the Moderna trial. It happened to be the same dose chosen for the Phase 3 vaccine. The experience was “uneventful,” he says. His arm was a little tender around the injection site, and he felt a little more tired than usual a few hours after getting the vaccine. That’s it. His advice? “I would encourage folks to participate in this trial knowing it would contribute to the development of COVID-19 vaccines in general, but it doesn’t necessarily mean they will be immune after getting the vaccine,” he says. You will still need to wear a mask, stay six feet from other people, and wash your hands frequently, he says.

When news about Phase 1 emerged, thousands of people called Emory asking if they could be among the first to get an experimental COVID-19 vaccine. Phase 3 is likely to be similarly popular. But if you don’t make it into the Moderna trial, you may get another chance. According to the World Health Organization, 24 COVID-19 vaccines are currently in human trials and 142 are in development.

Correction: A previous version of this story said that the Phase 3 trials would begin at Emory on July 27. They will begin in early August.

COVID-19 strikes deep in Georgia’s Latinx communities

COVID-19 strikes deep in Georgia’s Latinx communities
An Emory COVID-19 testing site in Hall County, where many poultry plant workers contracted COVID-19

Photograph courtesy of Emory University

In her years of helping migrant families in Gainesville, the “Poultry Capital of the World,” Vanesa Sarazua has seen plenty of hardship—families huddled together in a small house, children without enough food—but nothing compares with the dire circumstances she is encountering in the wake of a surging pandemic. The state’s vulnerable populations are hit hard by the pandemic, and some of the highest rates of infection are occurring in Latinx communities.

Sarazua recalls how the coronavirus took hold in one Gainesville family, sickening the mother and each of four children one by one, over a period of two months. The youngest, a 7-year-old boy, developed multi-system inflammatory syndrome, a rare childhood disorder triggered by the coronavirus that causes persistent fever and damage to the heart and other organs. Nationally, Latinx children make up almost one-third of cases—more than any other race or ethnicity, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Working through the nonprofit organization she founded in 2017, Hispanic Alliance Georgia, Sarazua gave the family rent assistance and food, as well as money for gas and parking so the mother could afford to travel back and forth to the hospital in Atlanta where the boy received treatment for two weeks. (He recovered.)

Another family hadn’t eaten for two days and had no electricity, Sarazua discovered. The grandmother, matriarch of the family, had been sick and unable to work. Her daughter had a toddler and was pregnant. Hispanic Alliance Georgia helped pay her rent and utilities and delivered an emergency food box, a project launched to help home-bound families as cases spiked in Hall County in April. A monthly drive-thru food distribution began in May, and it continues to attract hundreds of people.

“Our focus was on providing food and any relief we could for those families that were affected by COVID and didn’t have any other relief,” she says. “Families would call us and say, ‘We haven’t been working for a month.’” Immigrant families don’t qualify for federal stimulus funds or assistance if any family member lacks legal status.

Since COVID-19 emerged in Georgia in March, it has spread rapidly among those considered essential workers, including people who process chicken, work in restaurant kitchens, build homes, or provide other services. In Echols County, on the Georgia-Florida border, seasonal migrant workers travel in crowded buses, live in shared housing, and pick fruits and vegetables side by side. It has the state’s highest rate of COVID-19 infection, with more than 4,700 infections per 100,000. (The county population is only 4,000, but because of outbreaks among migrant farm workers, it has more than 185 COVID-19 cases.)

Gwinnett County, the second most populous and most ethnically diverse county in the state, leads the state with more than 10,000 reported COVID-19 cases. While every part of the county has been affected, cases have been concentrated in the most densely populated areas, including Latinx communities in Norcross and Lilburn, where multiple families or generations of a single family live together, says Audrey Arona, CEO and district health director for Gwinnett, Newton, and Rockdale County Health Departments.

A graph of Gwinnett’s COVID-19 spread roughly mirrors the statewide trends, with a plateau in April, a dip in early May and a sharp rise in June. Contact tracing by the health department hasn’t detected superspreading events, such as a church gathering or funeral or celebration, says Arona. Transmission patterns also haven’t been linked to particular workplaces. “It’s more related to where people live in the county as opposed to where they work,” Arona says.

Overall, Latinx people make up 9 percent of the state’s population but one-third of its COVID-19 cases, according to Georgia Department of Public Health data for which ethnicity was reported. “When you look at Georgia and the epidemic overall, COVID-19 is taking advantage of multi-generational health disparities and health inequities,” says Jodie Guest, vice chair of epidemiology at Emory University’s Rollins School of Public Health. Black Georgians are also at disproportionately high risk of contracting COVID-19 and having more severe disease.

Guest created “pop-up” testing sites in the parking lot of a poultry plant in Hall County, offering tests to family members of poultry workers to support the state’s testing efforts. “When we take the testing to communities at risk, we reduce a barrier to testing and we get much higher rates of testing, which is what we want,” Guest says. “We also want to make sure our testing sites feel very safe.” The rate of positive tests at the Emory sites has ranged from 16 to 28 percent, she says; overall in Georgia, about 9 percent of COVID-19 tests are positive.

Supported by a $7.8 million grant from the Robert W. Woodruff Foundation, the Emory COVID-19 Response Collaborative is partnering with the Georgia Department of Public Health on testing, contact tracing, a statewide prevalence survey, and other public health efforts.

Community testing began in earnest in Hall County in late March and early April. Internist Antonio Rios recalls an early testing event sponsored by the Good News Clinic, a free health clinic, and the Northeast Georgia Health System. About half of the 350 people tested positive—whether they had symptoms or not. That astonishing tally was followed by an even larger event. Of 1,000 people tested, about a third were positive for COVID-19. The poultry industry was a common link.

Still, Georgia’s poultry industry has been able to avoid the shutdowns that affected meatpacking plants around the country. On July 7, the CDC released a report on the impact of COVID-19 on meat and poultry plant workers. Through May 31, 509 of 16,500 workers in 14 Georgia poultry plants tested positive for COVID-19—or 3.1 percent. One died. In comparison, 24.5 percent of workers in South Dakota beef and pork plants tested positive. Iowa did not update its figures, but by the end of April, 18 percent of its meat and poultry workers had tested positive, according to the CDC.

For reasons that aren’t fully understood, Latinx workers are more likely to become sick, the CDC said. They represent 56 percent of the cases among meat and poultry plants in which race and ethnicity were known, even though they make up just 30 percent of the workers.

Poultry plants began checking employees for symptoms early on in the pandemic, and as the public health advice became clearer, the companies stepped up their prevention efforts, says Mike Giles, president of the Georgia Poultry Federation. By the time the CDC came out with guidelines for meat and poultry processing facilities on April 26—and as cases were spiking in Hall County and elsewhere—preventive measures were already in place. Today, the plants follow sanitation protocols, require employees to wear masks, and place plastic sheeting or plexiglass barriers between work stations, he says.

Yet that doesn’t help much if employees carpool to work and gather together after their shifts, especially if they lack personal protective equipment. The Georgia Poultry Federation and Georgia Emergency Management Agency distributed 150,000 masks to the community. A local task force spearheaded an awareness campaign, and many Hall County businesses now have stickers on their windows that say “No Mascara! No Servicio! No mask! No Service!”

“The community has been very responsive to the direction that is being given to them in terms of wearing masks,” says Rios, who is chief physician executive at the Northeast Georgia Physicians Group.

Rios answers questions in live events on Facebook, sponsored by the Hispanic Alliance Georgia. COVID-19 has laid bare the deeper health issues facing vulnerable communities—untreated and undertreated hypertension, diabetes, and other ailments that make them more susceptible.

“I really, really hope at the end of COVID-19, whenever that may be, that a positive outcome will be that we have a national conversation about the health inequities, racism, and disparities we’ve got in our country,” says Guest. “That conversation must be broad. It has to include everyone who lives in the United States who suffers these inequities.”

COVID-19 doesn’t discriminate, but society does

Coronavirus impacting black communities Atlanta Georgia
A coronavirus testing site in New York City. COVID-19 is disproportionately impacting communities of color across the United States.

Photogarph by David Dee Delgado/Getty Images

Atlantans are feeling the impact of COVID-19 unequally—and not just because low-paid service workers have returned to their jobs in newly opened restaurants, hair salons, and spas. Even in March, when the coronavirus first spread stealthily before bursting into outbreaks across metro Atlanta, people of color were more likely to end up in the hospital with severe symptoms. That racial disparity has also been found in other states.

When epidemiologists from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) looked at 305 cases from March at seven metro Atlanta hospitals and one in Albany, they found that 83 percent of the COVID-19 patients were black. As of 12:25 p.m. Monday, the Georgia Department of Public Health reported 29,177 COVID cases; half were among black Georgians. (Racial demographics aren’t available for about one-quarter of the state’s cases.)

Both COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations outstrip the area’s demographics; about 32 percent of the metro population is black. “All the statistics point to the fact that we’re more likely to be affected than the general population,” says Shelby Wilkes, an ophthalmologist and president of the Georgia State Medical Association, an organization of black physicians.

The question, of course, is why? The study didn’t explore that, but the authors suggest that “social and economic factors (including occupational exposures)” may play a role. CDC is continuing to analyze the racial disparities, the study’s senior author Brendan Jackson told Atlanta. “Health differences between racial and ethnic groups are often due to economic and social conditions that are more common among some racial and ethnic groups,” Jackson, a CDC medical epidemiologist, said by email. He cited “living conditions, work circumstances, underlying health conditions, and less access to care.”

Social and health disparities have long shaped life in Atlanta, which has the worst income inequality in the country. COVID-19 has simply laid bare the consequences, in a life-and-death context.

“If there was ever a time to make some changes, now would be the time to do it,” says Wilkes, who argues that the state needs to ramp up testing, make masks more accessible, and promote social distancing, especially in disadvantaged neighborhoods.

Interestingly, black patients who were hospitalized with COVID-19 were not more likely to have some high-risk medical conditions, such as diabetes, heart disease, or lung disorders, according to the CDC study. Overall, they had a higher average body-mass index, but they weren’t more likely to have severe obesity, which has been associated with more severe COVID-19 illness.

Health disparities still may have influenced the COVID-19 patterns, particularly if the diseases were not well-controlled because of inadequate healthcare, says Robert Mayberry, professor and epidemiologist at the Morehouse School of Medicine. “We don’t have the detailed information about those underlying conditions that I think would be critically important to know,” he says.

The CDC study is just a snapshot—a “convenience sample” of cases at selected hospitals that was not designed to be representative of COVID-19 cases overall. But the 305 cases made up a large portion of the total; as of March 30, the state reported 771 COVID-19 hospitalizations.

Mayberry cautions that demographic data shouldn’t be used to paint COVID-19 as a disease of people of color. The virus doesn’t discriminate—we are all equally susceptible. Race is likely just a clue to other differences and inequities, such as income and job status. “When we ask race and ethnicity, we should also ask more specific questions, such as where do you live? Where do you work? How frequently do you come into contact with others?” he says.

There is one encouraging finding in the otherwise troubling report. While black patients were more likely to end up in the hospital with severe COVID-19 symptoms, they recovered at the same rate as other patients. In other words, the disparity stopped at the hospital door. That provides a valuable lesson for our healthcare system in general. “If African Americans are treated according to need, then we should see fewer health inequities and health disparities,” says Mayberry.

Emory University helps test the nation’s first potential COVID-19 vaccine and possible treatments

Emory University coronavirus vaccine
Dr. Evan Anderson, Emory’s principal investigator for this study

Photograph by Johnathon Kelso

Evan Anderson, an infectious-disease doctor, heads to his post on the front lines of the COVID-19 battle just as the 7:30 a.m. bell tolls on the clock tower at Emory University, honoring the healthcare workers risking their lives in the hospital. There’s an urgency in the staccato repetition of those chimes, a reminder of the imperative facing Anderson and his colleagues.

In mid-March, Emory’s Vaccine and Treatment Evaluation Unit, under Anderson’s leadership, joined the nation’s first clinical trial for a COVID-19 vaccine. Emory is also testing drugs that could slow or halt the devastating assault of the virus in the lungs.

Normally, developing a new vaccine takes about a decade. But with the economy crippled and deaths mounting, the race is on to find an effective vaccine in little more than a year. Anderson immersed himself in that research while helping care for the sickest patients in the hospital. “It is a unique and unusual circumstance,” says Anderson. “But it helps to see firsthand the importance of this vaccine.”

On a normal spring day, Anderson would have been in his office or lab testing vaccines against other threats, such as respiratory syncytial virus, which often causes mild cold symptoms but can be deadly to very young infants and older adults. Or evaluating whether a compound added to the influenza vaccine could boost the body’s immune response. He set aside those studies as this new project emerged with an ultrafast timeline. “We had to drop a number of other things to get the study enrolling within two weeks,” he says.

The first phase of a drug trial involves just a few dozen people, but they need to be healthy and reliable. With two clinical vaccine research sites—the Emory Children’s Center Vaccine Research Clinic at the main campus, and the Hope Clinic of the Emory Vaccine Center just north of Decatur—the university has a track record of enrolling participants who stick with the protocol. (Infectious-disease doctor Nadine Rouphael, lead investigator for this trial at the Hope Clinic, is a co–principal investigator for Emory’s overall vaccine program, along with Anderson and Carlos del Rio, a global health expert at Emory.)

Sean Doyle, an MD/PhD student at Emory, opened an email from the vaccine center on Saturday afternoon, March 21. It was short and to the point. Would he be willing to be part of a COVID-19 vaccine trial? “I was 100 percent on board,” says Doyle, 31, who had received an experimental Ebola vaccine a few years before. “I didn’t even have to think about it.”

Two days later, he came for his screening, and received his first dose of the mRNA-1273 vaccine on Friday, March 27—less than a week after the initial email. Doyle was one of the first 17 Atlantans in this Phase One study, which checks for safety and signs of immune response. Another 28 people received the same vaccine at the Kaiser Permanente Washington Health Research Institute in Seattle, the lead institution for the trial. The first vaccine dose was administered there on March 16, just over two months after Chinese scientists shared the genetic sequence of the coronavirus.

Anderson met with Doyle to discuss how the vaccine works, its potential risks, and the requirements of the trial. He checked on him after a nurse injected the vaccine in his right upper arm. “It was a little bit tender for maybe a day. After that, it was like nothing had been injected there,” says Doyle. All participants receive a second dose a month after the first.

By mid-April, the vaccine trial had been safe enough to enable its expansion to a vulnerable group: older adults. Researchers added 30 people between the ages of 56 and 70 and 30 people 71 and older, split among sites at Emory, in Seattle, and at a National Institutes of Health center in Bethesda, Maryland.

The coronavirus has a crown of protein spikes, which the virus uses to gain entry to human cells. It then hijacks the human DNA to make copies of itself. The mRNA-1273 vaccine, developed by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and Moderna Therapeutics, a Massachusetts-based biotech company, contains a synthetic version of the virus’s messenger RNA—a strand of genetic code that instructs the body’s cells to make a section of the spike protein. “The hope is that this will prime the body’s immune system to make antibodies and maybe other infection-fighting cells, which can prevent infection of the real COVID-19,” Anderson says.

As much as Anderson wants mRNA-1273 to work, he knows most vaccine candidates don’t ultimately succeed. Two months after the first doses were given, the researchers will decide whether to advance to a Phase Two trial, which enrolls as many as a few hundred people and looks for an immune response and evidence that the vaccine spurs a protective effect. “We’re cautiously optimistic, but we’re trying to be prepared to move forward with other vaccines,” he says. There are more than 70 other candidates, including one the University of Oxford developed for other uses that might stop COVID-19 and could be available this fall.

Some patients Anderson sees are eligible for experimental treatments. About 100 Emory patients have been part of a study of remdesivir, an antiviral developed to treat Ebola. On April 29, the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases announced preliminary results of this randomized, controlled U.S. trial involving 1,063 patients that showed the drug led to quicker recovery. In response, the FDA was expected to authorize its emergency use for COVID-19. Clinical trials are also beginning on EIDD-2801, a different type of therapy developed by an innovative drug-development group at Emory.

Meanwhile, Emory doctors and nurses rely on basic medical techniques they have used in treating other infectious diseases. Their work is shaped by the intense experience of treating Americans with Ebola in 2014; all four patients recovered, and no Emory healthcare workers became ill. Infectious-disease doctor Aneesh Mehta was on call for the biocontainment unit when the first Ebola patient arrived. Inspired by the teamwork underlying the effective care, he later helped found a national consortium to assist hospitals in preparing for future outbreaks.

“We’re cautiously optimistic, but we’re trying to be prepared to move forward with other vaccines.”

Those plans unfolded this spring. The first week of March, he was doing rounds at the hospital when he received a call from the emergency department about a young patient with cough, fever, and body aches who had recently traveled to an area with a COVID-19 outbreak. The patient wasn’t terribly ill and recovered at home, but the wave was coming.

Even amid these difficult days, Mehta finds reasons for hope. “We have definitely had a lot of successes,” says Mehta, who is Emory’s lead researcher for remdesivir. “It heartens the team to get those patients back to their families. We hope to continue to do that until this outbreak is finished.”

This article appears in our June 2020 issue.

Georgia State University uncovers a promising treatment for COVID-19

Mukesh Kumar Georgia State coronavirus
Mukesh Kumar

Photograph courtesy of Georgia State University

The fastest way to find a new drug for COVID-19 is to try an old one. With that maxim in mind, Georgia State University virologist Mukesh Kumar ramped up a testing protocol in February just after reports emerged of the first U.S. cases of COVID-19, and on April 15, he released his findings about a promising candidate called auranofin.

Auranofin is a compound that contains gold and has been used since 1985 to treat rheumatoid arthritis (although it has been largely replaced by newer drugs). In tests in his high-level biosafety lab, Kumar and his colleagues found auranofin reduced the amount of coronavirus in infected cells by 95 percent just 48 hours after they were treated with one dose.

The drug also dramatically lowered the release of cytokines, proteins that send signals to the body’s immune system, summoning a response to an infection. When cytokines become overactive, COVID-19 patients sometimes suffer from severe lung damage caused by a “cytokine storm.”

The quest to tamp down that inflammation drove interest in hydroxychloroquine, a potential COVID-19 drug touted by President Donald Trump and others that also has been used to treat rheumatoid arthritis, an autoimmune disorder that causes inflammation and joint damage.

Hussin Rothan Georgia State coronavirus
Hussin Rothan, a post-doctoral researcher at GSU and co-author of the study, works in the lab.

Photograph courtesy of Georgia State University

“We were looking for drugs with a similar property, but derived from natural components so they are not as toxic,” says Kumar, who released his paper as a pre-print, which means it has not yet been vetted by other scientists. He has submitted the paper to the journal Virology.

Kumar plans to begin animal studies to see what dose of auranofin would be most effective and whether it needs to be given early in the disease or if it could work even after the infection is more advanced. He is still looking for other COVID-19 prospects, as well. “I’m sure there must be more drugs that could be effective,” he says. “We just have to test them.”

Because auranofin is already approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, physicians could use it immediately to treat COVID-19. But Kumar cautions it should only be taken under a physician’s supervision. Auranofin can cause digestive problems, rash, kidney problems, and other rare but serious side effects. (Gold powder is not the same as auranofin.)

Ultimately, drugs may be used in combination to combat COVID-19, he says. “We have to have to have some kind of therapy to completely stop it,” he says. “We will need either effective drugs or an effective vaccine.”

We asked prominent Atlantans what drives them to volunteer—and why you should too

One in four Atlantans volunteers their time to fight hunger, bring relief to the homeless, repair the environment, or mentor children. Their energy fuels some 5,000 local nonprofits. On the Martin Luther King Jr. Day of Service, January 21, Hands On Atlanta expects as many as 2,000 volunteers to work on 30 projects around the metro area—painting murals, clearing the Chattahoochee, planting trees, and delivering meals.

When asked to help, Atlantans respond. The organizers of Super Bowl LIII needed volunteers to help welcome visitors to the city, and 5,000 people applied within the first 24 hours. Ultimately, 32,000 vied for 10,000 volunteer spots. Team ATL will serve as host ambassadors and will engage in community projects.

Yet even this army of volunteers isn’t big enough to do all that needs to be done in Atlanta. “We’re still working to fulfill the dream of Dr. King, to help build the Beloved Community where no one is left out or left behind,” says Congressman John Lewis, the civil rights icon who marched with King.

Why should you volunteer? How much good can you do? We posed seven questions to Lewis and five others who have devoted themselves to service, from a former Falcons running back to a visionary teenager. Making a difference is easier than you think. Check out our accompanying list of nonprofits that need help—with opportunities that fit a wide range of interests and time commitments.

Volunteer in Atlanta: Rodney BullardVolunteer in Atlanta: John Lewis

John Lewis

The King holiday began as a day off. A chance to sleep late, a day to spend at the mall, a long weekend just after the December frenzy. Congressman John Lewis wanted it to be a “day on.”

“We must not allow the King holiday to become a day of nothing in particular—a day of shopping, a day of recreating,” he said as Congress considered the King Holiday and Service Act he sponsored in 1994 with then Senator Harris Wofford of Pennsylvania. “We must make the holiday a day of action, for ourselves and for our children.”

The son of sharecroppers, Lewis was just 18 when he met Martin Luther King Jr. Inspired by King’s sermons and the Montgomery bus boycott, Lewis organized sit-ins, joined the Freedom Ride of 1961, spoke at the March on Washington, and was beaten on Bloody Sunday as he helped lead a civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery.

Today, he sees volunteering as one way to carry on King’s legacy. “I truly believe that service is part of the building of the Beloved Community,” he says.


Why do you feel it is important to volunteer rather than just give money?
When you volunteer, you’re giving of yourself. When you go and pick up a broom or shovel or go work in someone’s garden or field, you’re giving your energy, and you’re building that sense of community.


When you look back on your years of service, what is one moment that especially resonates with you?
During the Carter administration, there was a flood in Pennsylvania. Hundreds of federal employees boarded buses, and we traveled in our work clothes with shovels and brooms. We took mud and dirt out of the basements and first floors of homes and brought people food and dry clothing. It was a lot of sweat and hard and difficult work, but we were pulling and working together. We were more than just federal employees.


What has been the most difficult or challenging experience you’ve had as you sought to help others?
During the height of the civil rights movement, people came together to serve, to make things better, whether it was conducting a voter registration drive in the heart of the deep South or trying to desegregate lunch counters in a restaurant. It was difficult. Sometimes you’d get arrested on some trumped-up charge or someone would beat you up. But it was a calling to make things better. When I look back on it, it made me stronger, it made me a better human being.

“I never really get discouraged. Sometimes the problems seem so massive—if you can just end one piece, it’s like making a down payment. It’s not finished. But at least you helped to end some of the pain and suffering and met some of the need.”


What do you wish people would consider before volunteering?
It’s not so much what you’re going to get out of volunteering, but what can you do to help your neighbor, your country, your city, or your town. Sometimes, it’s just going to a school, getting on the floor, on the same level as someone in the first grade or preschool, and talking to them.


What lesson have you learned from someone you sought to help?
More than anything else, I think I learned to be a little more human. And not to judge people. [In years past,] I’ve gone out with groups building homes for Habitat for Humanity. Seeing people from different backgrounds coming with a hammer or saw and learning how to work as a team is a great feeling. When you finish, you feel like you accomplished something not just for yourself, but for the person who worked beside you, the person who will live in that house.


In metro Atlanta, more than 1 million people volunteer their time—yet problems such as homelessness, hunger, animal abuse, and inequality seem as deep as ever. How do you keep from getting discouraged?
I never really get discouraged. Sometimes the problems seem so massive—if you can just end one piece, it’s like making a down payment. It’s not finished. But at least you helped to end some of the pain and suffering and met some of the need.


If you could fix one problem in the world, what would it be?
The lack of quality healthcare. The need for healthcare and homelessness and lack of food—those three go together. In America, there are so many people without any form of healthcare. In a city like Atlanta, you see so many people who need shelter, sleeping over grates, under coats and blankets. We need to find a way to deal with mental health. We need to be more responsive to the basic human needs of people.

Volunteer in Atlanta: Rodney BullardVolunteer in Atlanta: Michelle Nunn

Michelle Nunn

Michelle Nunn was just 23 when she met some young professionals who wanted to start an organization to make volunteering easier. They offered her a position as the executive director—a lofty title that came with little pay and no job security. She took it and eventually turned Hands On Atlanta into a global network of affiliates.

Nunn met her husband, Ron Martin, when he called her out of the blue with an idea for using volunteering to create community. TeamWorks!, which guides groups through weekend service projects and mixers, is still an active team-building program.

Today, Nunn is president and CEO of CARE USA, where she added a volunteer component to the global organization’s efforts to combat poverty. “Our hope is that we will be more entrepreneurial and creative as a result,” she says. “It’s a way to bring in supporters who will be invested in our future for a long time.”


Why do you feel it is important to volunteer rather than just give money?
While it’s rewarding to give financial resources, I think giving of yourself is where people often find the greatest reward. It connects you directly to the issues. People who are volunteering are better and more effective in allocating their philanthropic dollars.


When you look back on your years of service, what is one moment that especially resonates with you?
Among the most poignant was serving in the Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina and seeing the extraordinary sacrifice and solidarity and connection among volunteers, people working to help people restore and rebuild their lives. It was truly a vision of the Beloved Community.


What has been the most difficult or challenging experience you’ve had as you sought to help others?
The absolutely most tragic thing occurred at a Hands On Atlanta Day event many years ago. In one of those projects, a city truck lost traction. The emergency brake was not set, and the truck rolled over a husband and a wife. The wife was killed, and the husband was seriously injured. I’ll never forget my visit to the hospital. I had a great sense of personal responsibility. I remember [the husband, John Starr] just greeting me and saying how grateful he was for all the support he received [from Hands On Atlanta]. He and his son became some of our best volunteers, participating in Hands On Atlanta Day, year after year. They really became a symbol of hope when you thought there could not be any.

“With my CARE hat on, I would say if we could unleash the true potential and power of women across the world and have true gender equality.”


What do you wish people would consider before volunteering?
Think about where you want to start, but don’t become overwhelmed to the point of paralysis. Just take the first step. People can start with episodic or incremental volunteerism. Hands On Atlanta offers the opportunity to try things. You can take increasing steps. You can go from being a [one-time] tutor to being a committed, long-term mentor.


What lesson have you learned from someone you sought to help?
My most long-lasting mentorship started when I was in my 20s and 30s, and my [mentee] was 6. She’s now in her 20s. She has taught me so much. She would say I’m her mentor, but I would say she’s been my mentor over time and really an extended member of my family. I think what she taught me is that ultimately volunteering and service become integrated into who you are and your family, and it’s reciprocal in every sense.


In metro Atlanta, more than 1 million people volunteer their time—yet problems such as homelessness, hunger, animal abuse, and inequality seem as deep as ever. How do you keep from getting discouraged?
I think it’s by calibrating the progress along with the challenges. Too often, if you read just the daily headlines, they focus on what’s not working. I know this in my own global work. If you ask people whether global poverty has increased or decreased, 95 percent of people say it’s increased when in fact it’s been halved.


If you could fix one problem in the world, what would it be?
With my CARE hat on, I would say if we could unleash the true potential and power of women across the world and have true gender equality, it would make a world of difference on everything from climate change to feeding the world’s hungry. We estimate that if women had full equality in terms of access to land and tools, we could feed 150 million more people.

Volunteer in Atlanta: Rodney Bullard

Rodney Bullard

When Rodney Bullard arrived at The Gathering Spot, the lights were out, and the parking lot was empty. It was only 6 a.m. The Westside Future Fund summit wouldn’t start until 7:30, but Bullard wanted to make sure everything was in order.

“As people came in, I started to think about what we were trying to do to live out the ideals of the Beloved Community,” says Bullard, vice president of community affairs for Chick-fil-A and executive director of the Chick-fil-A Foundation, both sponsors of the Westside project.

The Westside Future Fund brings together nonprofit organizations, companies, and government agencies to revitalize an area that has suffered decades of decline. Local residents come to the bimonthly meetings and join the volunteer efforts.

“We often call this ‘the Atlanta way,’” says Bullard, author of the new book Heroes Wanted: Why the World Needs You to Live Your Heart Out.


Why do you feel it is important to volunteer rather than just give money?
It’s important to do both. But it’s easy for some to give money and not be invested. [Chick-fil-A CEO] Dan [Cathy] wanted to start these Westside meetings. We are here every other Friday because we are invested. Millions of dollars have been poured into Westside. What’s different now is that we have the time and money and talent of people who are committed to the work.


When you look back on your years of service, what is one moment that especially resonates with you?
In 2012, Chick-fil-A started a camp on the campus of Morehouse College for the children of Westside. We specifically featured it as a sports camp with nontraditional sports. We had tennis, golf, archery. We did not have football or basketball. Two young ladies came up to me after they had finished playing tennis and said, “We loved tennis, that was really cool. . . . Can you make money playing tennis?” And I said, “Well, there are two sisters, the Williams sisters, and I think they make money playing tennis.” The simplicity of the question, but also the ability to expose these kids to something that broadened their horizons—that’s a special moment.


What has been the most difficult or challenging experience you’ve had as you sought to help others?
I heard from some people, “Yeah, we tried that [before], the exact same thing. The neighborhood’s still the same.” That is a challenge. But it’s also an opportunity. I remember Mayor [Shirley] Franklin said that if you’re going to solve problems, you might as well solve hard problems. I think that’s a true statement. Anybody can solve easy problems.

“You should volunteer in a manner in which you’re convicted and called to volunteer.”


What do you wish people would consider before volunteering?
In my book, I write about conviction and calling. Conviction is that which pricks at your heart, and calling is responding to that which pricks at your heart. You should volunteer in a manner in which you’re convicted and called to volunteer.


What lesson have you learned from someone you sought to help?
I have learned humility. I have learned the importance of showing up. I have learned I can’t help everybody. I have learned that I have to be mindful of my own time and my own self. When I was in my first year in law school, which is the exact wrong time to do this, I decided I wanted to be a Big Brother. I really didn’t have time, but I thought that was the right thing to do. I wasn’t able to show up much. I remember showing up after the first year was on its down slope. I went to where this young man lived and he had run away. So, that always stuck with me.


In metro Atlanta, more than 1 million people volunteer their time—yet problems such as homelessness, hunger, animal abuse, and inequality seem as deep as ever. How do you keep from getting discouraged?
We will always have problems in our community. We will always have homelessness and poverty. We have to focus on the individual and not on the macro problem.


If you could fix one problem in the world, what would it be?
Talent is equally distributed. You see genius in the most unexpected places. You see business and entrepreneurship in the most unexpected places. Opportunity is not equally distributed. Even more so, expectation is not equally distributed. Because of that, people don’t expect much of their lives. They don’t go for more. If we can [provide more opportunity], I think that’s one of the ways we can solve many of our problems. I think bringing people together does help bridge opportunity and expectation, it does help bridge divide and division.

Volunteer in Atlanta: Warrick Dunn

Warrick Dunn

Warrick Dunn stood on the front porch of a small house with white siding and wrought-iron railings and held the keys high, as if making a toast: “Congratulations. Here’s my mother’s dream.” A woman and her two teenage sons walked inside and found a home that was not just furnished but stocked with food and decorated down to the throw pillows.

“It’s my mom’s legacy,” says Dunn of his program, Home for the Holidays, which works with Habitat for Humanity and other partners to provide opportunities for homeownership. “I’m living out her dream through other single parents. And it’s been one of the greatest joys.”

Dunn was just 18 when his mother, Betty Smothers, a Baton Rouge police officer moonlighting as a security guard, was gunned down in an attempted robbery in 1993. Smothers never owned her own home, but in the past two decades, her son—a former Atlanta Falcons running back—has provided homes to more than 160 single-parent families through Warrick Dunn Charities.

Now, Dunn, part owner of the Falcons, is giving back in another way—as captain of Team ATL, the army of 10,000 volunteers who will help welcome Super Bowl visitors to Atlanta.


Why do you feel it is important to volunteer rather than just give money?
I think if people have skin in the game, there is just a better outcome. If your hard work is part of your investment, it seems like you just care more.


When you look back on your years of service, what is one moment that especially resonates with you?
When I see the reaction of the parents and children we help through Warrick Dunn Charities, I feel like I am doing what my mom would be proud of. And that feels good to me. When I hand the keys over, I have the feeling that the parent will now unlock opportunities to create a sense of family history, a place where kids can study in peace, have pride in having their own beds or bedrooms. It will create safe spaces for them to grow and develop.


What has been the most difficult or challenging experience you’ve had as you sought to help others?
In the beginning, I was just trying to use my mom’s dream to help people in her similar situation—hard-working but in need of a break. Now, I see things differently, because the need for affordable housing is much bigger. It’s not just about one family. It’s about how can we build communities, create an environment so that everyone has the same opportunities.

“Kids, rich and poor, want the same things, too—to be accepted and loved for who they are.”


What do you wish people would consider before volunteering?
Their motivation. Sometimes it’s menial work, and the rewards are intrinsic. That has to be enough. And you need to feel fully committed—because people are depending on you.


What lesson have you learned from someone you sought to help?
That most people want the same things in life. Parents want safety, security, and a good education for their children. Kids, rich and poor, want the same things, too—to be accepted and loved for who they are.


In metro Atlanta, more than 1 million people volunteer their time—yet problems such as homelessness, hunger, animal abuse, and inequality seem as deep as ever. How do you keep from getting discouraged?
Yes, fatigue happens. Self-care is important. Take the break when needed and not when it is too late to recover. And then, hopefully, you will reconnect with why you got involved from the beginning.


If you could fix one problem in the world, what would it be?
Education and poverty because they are often one and the same or linked. The question becomes: How do we bring kids into a world where there are real opportunities and their gifts and talents will be encouraged and appreciated? We know that lack of education is a barrier to a sustainable life—and so is poverty. The mix of both is so very challenging. So, I’d start there.

Volunteer in Atlanta: Rodney BullardVolunteer in Atlanta: Ann Wilson Cramer

Ann Wilson Cramer

Ann Cramer held her most recent birthday party at the Atlanta Community Food Bank. That tells you everything you need to know about how deeply she feels about service—more than the long list of nonprofit boards she has chaired or honors she has received or details of her almost 50 years with IBM, most of which were spent in corporate engagement. After joyously sorting cans, she, Food Bank founder Bill Bolling, and two other friends with similar birthdays shared a huge sheet cake with about 100 friends, family, and other volunteers.

Cramer developed “external programs” for IBM and helped shape the evolution of corporate social responsibility in Atlanta. She retired in 2013 and now is a senior consultant working with Coxe Curry & Associates, which helps nonprofits with fundraising.


Why do you feel it is important to volunteer rather than just give money?
The important part isn’t whether it’s time or money. It’s that we’re sensitive to the needs of others and give what we can. There are seasons when we have more money. There are seasons when we have more time. There are seasons when we have more influence—being on a board and serving in leadership or being on a committee and giving your ideas. You have the privilege of using your feet, hands, heart, voice—bringing whatever you have—to best influence change.


When you look back on your years of service, what is one moment that especially resonates with you?
There are so many stories. [My husband,] Jeff, and I, working together with kids at Bass High School in the years of integration and going into homes to get kids to come to school. For years, I was working on the streets, [with] the hippies on Peachtree Street. I would leave my jacket on the back of my chair [at IBM] and go down and get kids who had OD’d and take them in my car to Grady. I think the most significant was when I had the privilege of chairing the Olympic Force, which was the volunteer corps for the 1996 Olympic Games.


What has been the most difficult or challenging experience you’ve had as you sought to help others?
One day, one of our little girls [we worked with in the neighborhood], age 13, rode on the bus with her grandmother to have her baby. That was one of those “ahas” for us that having faith wasn’t enough. You needed to give education. It’s kind of where Communities in Schools of Atlanta [a drop-out prevention organization, which Cramer cofounded] came from.

“All I’m asked to do every day is to love and find ways to create a better life for others. That’s the rent we pay for living on Earth.”


What do you wish people would consider before volunteering?
How hard it is. I love that you can feel good [by volunteering], but I hope you can feel whatever the burden and the barriers are that put people in situations. It’s fun for people to do the direct service, pass the juice, but it’s interesting to always understand the “why.”


What lesson have you learned from someone you sought to help?
How we can’t judge people. You would love Miss Poythress. She was disabled, had four children. Lived in a house on stilts. I loved that woman. She could cook collards. She invited Jeff over all the time for dinner when I was at IBM. She babysat my daughter. From a world view, she was a poor person and disabled, but from my view, she was the most gracious, generous, hospitable, adoring, good mom. The lesson is that we all have something to give and learn from each other.


In metro Atlanta, more than 1 million people volunteer their time—yet problems such as homelessness, hunger, animal abuse, and inequality seem as deep as ever. How do you keep from getting discouraged?
If I’m going to complain, I have to be a part of the solution. The poverty gap is so discouraging. But we live in hope. We live in a faith statement. All I’m asked to do every day is to love and find ways to create a better life for others. That’s the rent we pay for living on Earth.


If you could fix one problem in the world, what would it be?
Issues become so interconnected. I have a hard time just saying world hunger or housing. If you’re hungry and you don’t have a place to lay your head that’s safe, it’s hard to learn or grow or even be nice to others.

Volunteer in Atlanta: Rodney BullardVolunteer in Atlanta: Gracelyn Leath

Gracelyn Leath

One morning, when she was running a bit early, Gracelyn Leath’s mother dropped her and her sister, Brooke, off at the senior center next door to their middle school and suggested they ask the social events manager if they could volunteer. The sisters had told their mom, after a recent volunteer day at their school, that they wanted to do more. Still, Gracelyn recalls, “I was like, why would they need help from a 12-year-old?”

The manager was thrilled, and a few days later, the girls and a few friends came back to sing Christmas carols with residents. They left feeling buoyant and returned soon after. “It was cool to see that a small act of kindness brought so much joy,” says Gracelyn, who is now 18 and a student at Kennesaw State University.

Gracelyn and Brooke decided to spread the joy by forming Teens Help Other People, which encourages teen-led volunteer experiences. Today, TeenHOP has more than 50 chapters around Georgia and the country—and even a few in other countries.


Why do you feel it is important to volunteer rather than just give money?
When you’re making a difference, it gives you a greater sense of purpose. You’re like, “Wow, I’m actually doing something that’s not about me.” One small act can lead to something so much bigger. If you give money on a website, you just keep living your life, you don’t see how your money is affecting people.


When you look back on your years of service, what is one moment that especially resonates with you?
In the winter of 2016, we were working with a young leader who wanted to start a TeenHOP chapter in Grayson. We found an elderly facility in her area and played bingo with the residents. After bingo, we went to each room, knocked on the door, and gave out oranges. In one room, there was a couple. The older man, who was a pastor, just started singing songs. We looked at his daughter, and his daughter started crying. She was like, “You don’t understand: He has dementia, and he hasn’t been this happy in a long time.” His wife gets on the piano, and she’s blind. She’s playing the piano. The daughter said, “It’s been so long since I’ve seen my mom play the piano. I’m so thankful you came to this room to just show kindness.” It was an amazing moment.


What has been the most difficult or challenging experience you’ve had as you sought to help others?
The most difficult thing is probably funding. When we first started locally, at least 95 percent of the money came from my parents. Now, since we’re a 501(c)(3), it’s easier to get donations, but we’re still having trouble getting funding from other organizations.


What do you wish people would consider before volunteering?
Sometimes volunteers are like, “I’m going to pack these things and just go on home. I got my volunteer hours for my [high school requirement], check, check, go on to my regular life.” Volunteering should be a lifestyle, in my opinion.

“When you’re making a difference, it gives you a greater sense of purpose.”


What lesson have you learned from someone you sought to help?
When we volunteered at the elderly facility, we had a “senior prom.” I was very apprehensive at first. I didn’t know how they would react. In the end, it was absolutely beautiful. It was great to see all the ages, all the different races and nationalities were having a great time in one room and just celebrating life. The lesson was that any idea—it didn’t matter what— showed that we cared.


In metro Atlanta, more than 1 million people volunteer their time—yet problems such as homelessness, hunger, animal abuse, and inequality seem as deep as ever. How do you keep from getting discouraged?
What keeps me from getting discouraged is thinking back on all the people I helped. I do still get discouraged, but I think about if I stop volunteering, these problems won’t be solved either.


If you could fix one problem in the world, what would it be?
Probably fixing our sense of unity. We’re all Americans. No matter what we look like, or our financial status, or our political views, I feel like we’re all in this together. We can agree to disagree, but we can at least agree that we’re all human and we all want the same thing, which is a better world for the next generation.

This article appears in our January 2019 issue.

Emory Proton Therapy Center opens, bringing a new-age tool to the battle with cancer

Emory Proton Therapy Center
Emory Proton Therapy Center’s Ponce de Leon entrance

Photograph courtesy of Emory University

When the Emory Proton Therapy Center opened its doors on Thursday, it was already a symbol of triumph over challenges. Its construction consumed five years, $230 million, and 36,000 cubic yards of concrete—as much concrete as it took to build the Bank of America Plaza across the street, which is the tallest skyscraper in Georgia. The project fell a couple of years behind schedule when the original owner failed to obtain enough financing. But eventually the nonprofit Provident Resources Group saw the project to completion—with the help of Invest Atlanta, the city’s economic development authority.

Emory Proton Therapy Center
Beam line

Photograph courtesy of Emory University

As the center’s superconducting cyclotron, encased in 14-foot-thick walls, energized protons for precise, cancer-killing radiation, about 40 patients were already awaiting treatment. Proton therapy treats tumors with a concentrated dose of radiation that produces little or no damage to surrounding tissue. That precision is especially beneficial for treating tumors of the lungs, back and spine, and head and neck. For children with cancer, proton therapy avoids damaging their developing tissue and organs, a serious concern with conventional radiation.

“It’s really the start of a new era in cancer treatment here in the state of Georgia.”

The Emory Proton Therapy Center is the first and only facility of its kind in the state. “It’s really the start of a new era in cancer treatment here in the state of Georgia,” says Mark McDonald, a radiation oncologist and the center’s medical director.

There are 29 other such centers in the United States and another 23 under construction or in planning stages. With five treatment rooms, Emory’s center is among the largest.

Emory Proton Therapy Center
Treatment room

Photograph courtesy of Emory University

Basked in a backlit blue glow, the cancer treatment room looks like the set of a sci-fi thriller. The “gantry,” a 240-ton device that emits a powerful proton beam, glides along a circular track around a sleek black treatment table. Everything is controlled remotely from computers in an adjacent room.

Emory Proton Therapy Center
The gantry

Photograph courtesy of Emory University

Down a hallway, behind an always-closed set of doors, protons spin in the cyclotron until they reach a speed two-thirds as fast as light. (Protons are the positive particles in the nucleus of an atom. X-rays are photons, electromagnetic rays with a shorter wavelength than visible light.) The protons travel 100 yards through a vacuum tube, guided by magnets in “pencil-beam scanning,” a pinpoint method of delivering radiation.

The opening of the proton therapy center on Peachtree Street marks yet another clinical milestone for Emory University’s Winship Cancer Institute, which was designated as a comprehensive cancer care center by the National Cancer Institute in 2017. Supporters of the center gathered in a heated tent outside the center to hear Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms laud its life-saving possibilities and Atlanta Braves vice chairman emeritus John Schuerholz, a prostate cancer survivor, offer his congratulations.

The delay in opening turned out to be advantageous as the Emory Proton Therapy Center was able to incorporate updated hardware and software and learn from experiences at other centers, says Walter J. Curran, Jr., executive director of Winship.

Emory Proton Therapy Center
From left: John Schuerholz, Vice Chairman Emeritus, Atlanta Braves; Walter J. Curran, Jr., MD, Executive Director, Winship Cancer Institute of Emory University; Steve E. Hicks, Chairman & CEO, Provident Resources Group; Claire E. Sterk, President, Emory University; Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, Mayor of the City of Atlanta; Jonathan S. Lewin, MD, President & CEO, Emory Healthcare.

Photograph courtesy of Emory University

The first patient, who has a “complicated cancer,” began treatment a couple of days before the opening. “Everything went beautifully with the treatment,” Curran says. Patients typically have treatment sessions five days a week for four to six weeks.

The center is owned by Georgia ProtonCare Center, a non-profit subsidiary of Provident Resources Group in Baton Rouge. Emory provides the clinical care.

Medical Mystery: The case of the painful purple spots

Top Doctors purple spotsWhen a little purple spot first appeared on Shelly Matheson’s ankle, it seemed like something curious that she would mention to her internist. Then, it got bigger and painful—and turned into an open ulcer. It healed, but other spots appeared and erupted into ulcers.

A dermatologist told Matheson, 54, that the purple spots were small blood clots beneath the skin. Thinking they might be caused by an autoimmune reaction, he sent her to a rheumatologist, who gave her anti-inflammatories. Over a period of more than seven years, she visited another dermatologist, a hematologist (blood specialist), a vascular surgeon, and a wound clinic.

Prednisone, a corticosteroid that suppresses the immune system, brought relief for about a year and a half. But then the spots came back with a vengeance. Ulcers appeared on both ankles, and redness streaked across her skin like it was on fire. She slept with ice packs on her ankles, wore compression stockings, and took pain medicine every four to six hours just to make it through the day.

At times the sores would subside, only to flare up again, often in the spring and summer. She tried medicines, dietary supplements, creams, and ointments, but she still had sores—and no diagnosis.

Matheson works as a supervisor of business operations at Emory Clinic administration, and when she heard of the Special Diagnostic Services clinic, she knew she had to go there. “This was my last bit of hope,” she says.

Diagnosis: Livedoid vasculopathy. Dr. Clyde Partin studied her voluminous records, and when Matheson came in, he delved into questions for more than an hour. After looking at new blood tests, Partin consulted with Dr. Robert Swerlick, head of dermatology at Emory Clinic. Swerlick is the one who gave her the diagnosis—a rare disease of the blood vessels in the lower legs and feet—and he put her on metformin and B vitamin supplements. She hasn’t had a single purple spot or ulcer since. “It was my miracle,” she says.

This mystery was solved by Emory Clinic’s Special Diagnostic Services. For more about the clinic and Dr. Clyde Partin, check out our story, Doctor Detective.

This article appears in our July 2018 issue.

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