Experts speak during a Zoom presentation

Clockwise, from upper left: Course co-directors Allan Brandt, of Harvard Medical School, and Ingrid Katz, of the Brigham; Pardis Sabeti, of the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health; and Margaret Bourdeaux, of the Brigham, discuss COVID-19 testing and related topics during the undergraduate course’s Sept. 22 session.

Teaching history as it unfolds is no small feat, but several Brigham clinicians and researchers will do just that by sharing their experiences on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic in a new Harvard University undergraduate course.

Instead of traditional academic lectures, the virtual course — “Confronting COVID-19: Science, History, Policy” — will feature fireside chat-style discussions with 75 guest speakers from Harvard-affiliated institutions, including the Brigham, about how they responded to the crisis and the lessons they learned along the way.

“Having our faculty speak to their own experiences is so powerful. It brings the subject alive for students,” said Ingrid Katz, MD, MHS, an infectious diseases specialist in the Brigham’s Division of Women’s Health and associate faculty director of the Harvard Global Health Institute.

“These are people who had to make excruciating decisions about how to open up ICU beds, ensure access to adequate PPE and care for patients when visitors could not be in the hospital,” said Katz, who is co-leading the course with Allan M. Brandt, PhD, a bioethics expert and medical historian at Harvard Medical School and Harvard University. “They worked through all of these things as a team, which I think is one of the most valuable lessons that students can learn from this.”

Fourteen experts from the Brigham will reflect on their contributions to hospital preparedness and response, patient care, vaccine clinical trials, health equity, contact tracing, masking policies and more.

“There are so many layers, and we really want to provide students with a 360-degree view of this moment,” Katz said. “There is a remarkable diversity, depth and breadth of expertise among faculty who are engaged in this work here, and the fact that we could identify so many Brigham experts to represent all these different subjects is incredibly exciting.”

An Evolving Narrative

Among the speakers is pulmonary and critical care physician Daniela Lamas, MD, who cared for COVID-19 patients in specialized intensive care units during the height of the surge and oversees a new follow-up clinic for patients who have recovered from the disease.

Lamas will co-present with one of her patients and his son, who will also share their perspectives of this uncertain and emotional time for their family.

“The patient’s son is entering his freshman year in college, so I think offering undergrads a window into what it was like for somebody their age to be thrust into this role — helping navigate care for his dad and being afraid his father wasn’t going to survive — is extraordinarily powerful,” Lamas said.

Infectious diseases specialist and HIV researcher Bisola Ojikutu, MD, MPH, will present on the multiple concerns surrounding participation of Black and Latinx patients in future COVID-19 vaccines — including equitable representation in clinical trials, low anticipated uptake once vaccines are available and potential barriers to accessing them.

Having front-line experts speak directly about their experiences and present evidence-based data is valuable in helping combat the “overwhelming amount of misinformation regarding COVID-19 in the media,” explained Ojikutu, who also serves as director of the Community Engaged Research Program at the Harvard Center for AIDS Research.

“The mistrust of research (including vaccine research), medical institutions and health care providers is a complex phenomenon that is deeply rooted in the pervasive history of structural racism in the U.S.,” she said. “I hope to provide valuable information that will promote student interest in developing strategies to improve equity in the development and uptake of interventions, like vaccination, among vulnerable populations.”

Other Brigham speakers include Atul Gawande, MD, MPH, who will reflect on lessons learned from Mass General Brigham’s universal masking policy; Sonya Shin, MD, MPH, who will highlight the disproportionate effect the pandemic has had on Navajo Nation; and Lindsey Baden, MD, who will discuss the ongoing work to develop a safe, effective COVID-19 vaccine. (See the box below for a complete list of Brigham speakers.)

As the pandemic itself is still in flux, Katz expects the course will evolve during the semester.

“History is playing out in real time. Anything that’s ever been written on COVID has been written in the last six months,” she said. “I am certain this course is going look very different in October and December as the situation changes.”

Lamas agreed. “If we were to teach this five years later, it would be entirely different. But we’re in this moment now,” she said. “Throughout the course of this class, our understanding and this experience will change, and I think that’s really fascinating and exciting.”

Brigham Speaker Lineup: “Confronting COVID-19: Science, History, Policy”

  • Jonathan Abraham, MD, PhD, Division of Infectious Diseases
  • Lindsey Baden, MD, Division of Infectious Diseases
  • Margaret Bourdeaux, MD, MPH, Department of Medicine
  • Paul Farmer, MD, PhD, Division of Global Health Equity
  • Atul Gawande, MD, MPH, Department of Surgery
  • Ingrid Katz, MD, MHS, Division of Women’s Health
  • Michael Klompas, MD, Division of Infectious Diseases
  • Daniela Lamas, MD, Division of Pulmonary and Critical Care Medicine
  • Joia Mukherjee, MD, MPH, Division of Global Health Equity
  • Bisola Ojikutu, MD, MPH, Division of Infectious Diseases and Division of Global Health Equity
  • Raj Panjabi, MD, MPH, Division of Global Health Equity
  • Sonya Shin, MD, MPH, Division of Global Healthy Equity
  • Benjamin Sommers, MD, PhD, Division of General Internal Medicine and Primary Care
  • David Walton, MD, MPH, Division of Global Health Equity