Archive for December, 2021


Dec 19 2021

Life in the Time of Coronavirus

by at 1:51 pm

It’s back, though it never really went away. I retired the title of today’s blog six months ago because we were back at work, and the contours of pre-pandemic life were increasingly visible through the fog. But that title is making what I hope will be a one-time and final guest appearance. As COVID-19 case counts, hospitalizations and deaths rise around the country and here in our backyard, we face the specter of our recent past — but like a dream, it resembles but will not replicate our past reality.

I have seen the new reality up close. Nine of my close family members, all either vaccinated or too young to be vaccinated, spent parts of the last month dealing with COVID-19. While nobody was ever in danger of hospitalization, it was not fun, and it disrupted their lives. For those of us who are vaccinated, we can expect more of the same. Once the Omicron variant becomes the dominant strain, it seems increasingly likely that many of us will experience the same fate. As only 1 in 6 Americans have received boosters, many of those who have been vaccinated can clearly improve their chances of having an uncomplicated infection, or even to avoid infection. Please get a booster if you have not yet done so.

Some of our unvaccinated, and potentially unmasked, neighbors will escape this winter unscathed, but many will be infected, some will get very sick, and too many will die. The majority of those deaths will have been preventable, but at this point I frankly don’t know what more evidence people need to help them make the obvious decisions to protect themselves from a severe illness and possible death.

In the early stages of this pandemic, I was haunted by the photo of a man wearing a T-shirt that proudly stated, “My freedom is more important than your safety.” That mean-spirited homage to Ayn Rand proved prophetic, as unvaccinated people are viral reservoirs that place everyone — irrespective of vaccination status — at risk. The cruel irony of this supremely selfish attitude is its inevitable corollary logo: “My freedom is apparently more important than my own safety.” Strip away the political and cultural battles that have shaped such statements, and we’re left with what amounts to a willingness to die an avoidable death in order to make a rather small point. Why?

So, we conclude a year that in some ways was more challenging and difficult than 2020. Despite the fear of the unknown, we were in the health equivalent of a shooting war in 2020, and a sense of battlefield camaraderie and high emotion sustained many of us. 2021 started off with such promise, as vaccines became available and many of us, including me, felt as if we had turned the corner. Little did we know we were in a maze, with no end yet in clear sight. More Americans have died of COVID in 2021 than in 2020. At least half of those 2021 deaths could have been prevented by vaccines. Imagine that.

America is in a bad mood. Hospitals, doctors and nurses are nearing their breaking points — again. People are tired of the drama, and want to be left alone to get on with their lives. Many have reconsidered what is important to them, contributing to the Great Resignation. Looking back on the year, it was more of a slog, with fits and starts of quasi-normalcy, ending with people stocking up on home testing kits and masks. Deja vu all over again.

Or is it? Heading into 2022, we know so much more than we did in 2020. We know that commonsense measures such as masking and social distancing can reduce viral transmission. We can reliably test for the virus and its variants, and vaccines can prevent or minimize the impact of infections, saving countless lives in the process. We have a suite of lifesaving, clinically proven tools that minimize or limit the impacts of severe COVID-19 induced illnesses. Enough of us have been or will be fully immunized so that viral exposure or clinically apparent infections will cause no more than temporary inconveniences. The Omicron variant is highly infectious, but can be fairly well controlled by vaccinations and boosters. As I mentioned before, I think Omicron is the first step in how this pandemic begins to evolve into an endemic illness.

It will be interesting to see what 2022 brings. With luck, we can keep work, schools and commerce moving, albeit with the implementation of flexible, commonsense rules that, like an accordion, relax and contract as needed to allow all of us to live our best lives. Just because we can’t yet let down our guards doesn’t mean we can’t keep moving forward.

This is my last blog for 2021. I wish you happy and very safe holidays. May 2022 be filled with happiness, health, the actual end of the pandemic, and important work that helps us to end cancer as we know it.

Stay safe and be well.



The views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in the text belong solely to the author, and not necessarily to the author’s employer, organization, committee or other group or individual.

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Dec 12 2021

COVID on My Mind

by at 11:48 am

COVID is not yet done with us. Our daughter-in-law Kelly, who has received her booster, developed cold symptoms, lost her taste of smell and tested positive this past week. So, now all the members of our sons’ families have contracted COVID-19 — nine people. Fortunately, Kelly is not terribly symptomatic. Ken and his family are fully recovered, back at work and school, and so decamped to the beach for the weekend. We decided to stay home out of an abundance of irrational caution. When our little granddaughter Isabelle heard we would not be joining them, she broke down and cried. However, when we FaceTimed them on Saturday, she told us not to come because “we have the coronavirus.” She is 3 1/2 years old, and this is her reality.

I fear that the combination of more infectious variants and the general relaxation of masking and social distancing by vaccinated and unvaccinated people alike portends a challenging winter. I would be surprised if we had to go back into a lockdown, but instead we may well have to deal with the pandemic equivalent of “rolling brownouts.” Our family’s experience is likely to be replicated — even if vaccinated, many people will get infected, and there will be work and school absences, fairly brief family quarantines, but no shutdowns, except in settings with high levels of unvaccinated people. Most hospitalizations will occur in the frail and elderly, especially in those who have not been vaccinated. It won’t be a lot of fun, but we will get through it. I just hope our region’s hospitals, already struggling with staff shortages, will be able to manage the higher caseloads. We will get through it more quickly if people have the good sense to get vaccinated and boosted. Maybe it can’t prevent infection, but vaccinations sure can keep folks out of hospitals and funeral homes.

Meanwhile, our important work continues. I had the honor of speaking at a virtual immunotherapy symposium at the Library of Congress on Monday with GUMC Neuroscience PhD graduate Dr. Danielle Carnival (White House science policy advisor), Dr. Ellen Sigal (Friends of Cancer Research), Dr. Giorgio Trinchieri (microbiome expert at NCI) and Dr. Jim Allison (Nobel Laureate from MD Anderson who discovered CTLA4, paving the way for immune checkpoint antibodies).

We also have many faculty achievements to recognize as well. Congratulations to the 2021 John Potter “Rising Star” awardees, Jinani Jayasekera and Chul Kim. They will be giving presentations at an upcoming Lombardi Grand Rounds. Irfan Khan, a PhD student in Anton Wellstein’s laboratory, published a very interesting study in Frontiers in Cell and Developmental Biology, showing that stress and tissue damage initiated by angiotensin II, a molecule that is known to increase blood pressure and stiffening in the linings of blood vessels, leads to cellular senescence; when senescent cells were eliminated from the mice, tissues returned to a normal state in spite of a continued infusion of angiotensin II. Jill Smith was elected to the National Academy of Inventors. Finally, Bassem Haddad was appointed as the GUMC Ombudsperson. Congratulations to all of our colleagues who are making important scientific contributions and providing meaningful service to our university community.

I am looking forward to a busy week, even as the calendar year winds down and we begin to think about the coming winter break. Whatever you do, please be careful. Stay safe, and be well.



The views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in the text belong solely to the author, and not necessarily to the author’s employer, organization, committee or other group or individual.

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Dec 05 2021

Winter is Coming

by at 4:17 pm

I hope you had a wonderful Thanksgiving. Our family’s celebration was sullied by the ultimate unwanted guest at the table: coronavirus. Our plans were for the extended family to congregate at Ken and Sarah’s home in the Philly suburbs. Sarah, who was doubly vaccinated and about to get boosted, developed a viral syndrome and tested positive for COVID-19 five days before the holiday. We think she was exposed to the virus at work. In short order, Ken, also doubly vaccinated but not yet boosted, and their three kids all tested positive. Their oldest child, Ella, had been scheduled to receive her first vaccine that Monday, and Eli was also being scheduled. So much for planning. Fortunately, nobody got terribly ill, though Ken is still dragging. Sarah is now back at work, and two of the three kids are back at school.

So, we spent a lovely Thanksgiving with Elana and her family, as none of us tested positive and had no contact with Ken’s family when they were potentially infectious. Doubly vaccinated, Dave and his family proceeded with their previous plans to celebrate the holiday with Kelly’s extended family in New Jersey. He developed symptoms two days before Thanksgiving, but tested negative twice. They returned on Sunday, and because he still was sick, he took another test and, sure enough, he had it. He thinks he was exposed to the virus by a patient he saw in the ER. Kelly, who had been boosted, never tested positive, and her entire family in NJ escaped infection, but both Clara and Clark got colds and tested positive. Dave received the Regeneron antibody and is basically better, as are the kids. Having played a role in the development of monoclonal antibodies, that sweet irony was not lost upon me.

COVID cast its shadow on our family’s Thanksgiving and then our celebration of Hanukkah. However, I’ll trade the health of the people I love for a turkey leg or a spin of the dreidel any day.

So, there is a lesson in this long-winded recitation. Winter is coming. COVID is not going away; in fact, as of Saturday morning, cases are rising again around the country. Be careful. If you have not yet been vaccinated, what are you waiting for? Vaccination did not prevent infections in my family, but likely converted potentially lethal illnesses into fairly standard, annoying, but not dangerous viral inconveniences. Nobody who had been boosted got sick or tested positive. If you have been vaccinated, get your booster — please!

Your life is too important to too many people to risk having it thrown away needlessly.

Stay safe and be well.



The views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in the text belong solely to the author, and not necessarily to the author’s employer, organization, committee or other group or individual.

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