Luciana Borio, M.D., who warned the public in an opinion piece published in the Wall Street Journal in late January 2020 about the pending COVID-19 pandemic, will be a keynote speaker at RISE National, a virtual live-streaming event, later this month. In this interview, Dr. Borio talks to RISE about COVID, what’s on the horizon, and what health plans can do to support their members.

Dr. Luciana Borio has dedicated her entire career to preparing for pandemics and will open the second day of the RISE National 2021 virtual conference with a fireside chat that addresses the impact of COVID-19 in today’s health care system. 

A vice president at In-Q-Tel, a nonprofit venture capital firm focused on the delivery of innovative technologies to the U.S. national security community, Dr. Borio has been an active public health advocate throughout her career. Between 2017 and 2019, she served as the director of medical and biodefense preparedness policy of the National Security Council. She warned the public about the pending COVID-19 pandemic in late January and served as an advisor on President Joe Biden’s transition COVID-19 Advisory Board. 

The trauma of COVID

During a recent interview with RISE, when asked about her assessment of the current state of the pandemic in the United States, Dr. Borio said she wanted to first acknowledge the trauma the entire population has experienced in the past year. 

All pandemics and infectious diseases have an ability to fray the fabric of society, she said, as we know from reading about historical events, such as the 1918 influenza pandemic. But it’s one thing to read about a pandemic in a history book and quite another to experience one in real time and witness the impact on society on multiple levels, without knowing when it will end or what the future will bring.

“We’ve been bruised badly and there are deep wounds and scars. People are exhausted,” she said, noting that even some who consider themselves to be resilient have reached their limit or are close to their breaking point. “Going forward from a health system perspective, we have to be attuned to the mental health issues that will emerge even as the pandemic begins to subside . . . and it is not only patients. . . health care workers are also showing signs of post-traumatic stress. We can’t lose focus of mental health issues,” she said.

At the population level, many have been exposed to the virus. Society has also been polarized by different attitudes about the virus and many didn’t heed public health advice, she said. Sadly, because of socio-economic disparities, many were exposed because they work in jobs that do not accommodate remote work and their need for income compelled them to take risks and show up for work in person. The level of protection given to these frontline workers varied, she said.

There is a large segment of the population, however, that hasn't been exposed, Dr. Borio said. They followed public health advice, they sheltered in place, worked remotely, wore masks in public, and avoided indoor venues and other congregate settings. “Those individuals remain vulnerable to the virus and would certainly be exposed if society were to reopen overnight and everything went back to normal. That’s why vaccinating more people becomes so important before we lift all public health restrictions,” she said. And with the emergence of new variants of the virus, which can infect even people who already had COVID-19, vaccinating them is also essential.   

The worst may be over

Although some public health officials worry about a huge surge in transmission because of the new variants of COVID that are now spreading, Dr. Borio believes the worst of the pandemic could be behind us if we continue the race to vaccinate. There is a steady uptick in the number of vaccines available, distributed, and administered every day, she said, and there are more vaccination sites opening across the country. By this summer we should have a significant number of adults across the country vaccinated. By fall, teenagers may be vaccinated and early next year, younger children.

However, she said there is still a tremendous amount of misinformation spread about the virus and vaccinations. Dr. Borio believes health plans could help combat this misinformation and vaccine hesitancy by providing members with easily accessible and credible information about vaccines.

 “I think there is a lot of opportunity for improving access to care and information about care,” she said. “The information posted on the CDC and other public health websites can be difficult for the average person to fully understand. People need a variety of trusted information sources to help them take appropriate action. That’s something health care plans can do to help. It’s not a medical consultation, but it’s more troubleshooting of a situation just like when we have a problem with our cell phone service. We need to make it easy for people to have their questions answered. Right now, there is no real place other than Google to ask. However, these types of questions aren’t easily answered through searching the internet because you need a dialogue. Health plans could play a very important role here,” she said.

Dr. Borio will discuss the impact of COVID and strategies to prepare for a future pandemic on 10:05 a.m. EST, Tuesday, March 30, the final day of  RISE National. Click here for more information about the three-day virtual live-streamed event, which will take place March 26, 29, and 30, including the full agenda, roster of speakers, and registration information.