Surviving a Pandemic, Six Months Out

Audrey Goldfarb

“How are you?” is more of a formality than a genuine question. Any response other than a variation of “Good! How’re you?” is unexpected. I personally find maintaining a façade of blue skies to be emotionally draining, so I tend to answer the “how are you?” question honestly when I’m actually not okay. However, for the last several months, can any of us claim to have been okay at baseline? And if the answer is no, are we admitting it?

I anonymously polled Rockefeller community members to gauge our wellbeing more accurately, as well as to give people an opportunity to outwardly acknowledge that they are indeed struggling. The responses were mixed, some reading as guarded and stoic, others raw and vulnerable. Individual experiences are also variable. I hope that sharing some of these experiences reinforces a sense of community around our mutual tumult and reminds us all that it’s okay to not be okay. “There are days of dread and fear, and others of hope,” one Rockefeller employee said.

Productivity and mental health have a complicated relationship, but often they suffer together. Our work life was severely disrupted during quarantine, and even though campus has reopened, it is a far cry from how it looked and felt in February. Shift work also puts limits on the time we can spend in the lab.

“Working from home is not efficient and productive for me,” one student said. “It’s harder for me to be focused on working at home because home really doesn’t give me the environment of working. And of course, I cannot go to the lab to do experiments so very little progress on research. Honestly speaking, I feel frustrated spending months at home getting limited things done.”

 Zoom makes lectures accessible from anywhere but staring at a screen all day takes a toll. Many of us struggle to achieve the same level of engagement they have during in-person lectures. “I can’t focus during Zoom classes or meetings, most of what was said in them has been erased from my memory,” a student said.

 “I am much less productive, and much less able to focus,” another student said.

 “It’s hard trying to work at home especially since before this I’ve always tried really hard to separate work and home spaces,” another student said. “I’ve just resigned myself to not being at the ‘height of productivity.’ Right now, I’m rethinking my approach to lab work and trying to put my personal well-being much more ahead of lab productivity.”

With no end in sight, the many concerns we obsess over remain unresolved. “The uncertainty of when everything will go back to normal, when will we go back to lab, when can we travel to see our families, when can people who are stuck somewhere in the world will be able to go out, when can we all feel safe again so I don’t have fear if a family member gets sick.”

“So far it seems like we are all learning about this virus day-by-day, with no clear end in sight.”

“Personally, I just keep reminding myself that this won’t last forever. It won’t go away tomorrow, but it’s not going to be like this for the next decade.”

Social distancing made it impossible to fully lean on friends and family for support. Our social lives were hit hard. “I’ve forgotten how to interact with people,” one student said. “I particularly noticed that I’m having difficulty looking at other people’s faces and maintaining eye contact in person, and that I’ve forgotten how to end conversations.”

We have been deprived of many of our coping mechanisms, socialization in particular, but also other escapes and entertainment around the city. Without space away from our internal and external conflicts, they become even more exhausting and tormenting. “It is my anxiety about racial conflicts on top of the usual pandemic issues that really keeps me up at night,” one international student said.

“Everyone has their special circumstances that have made dealing with this pandemic difficult,” a student, whose family member started chemotherapy in February, said. “For me it was concern about immunocompromised family members and social isolation leading to an almost agoraphobia due to lack of access to the outside…The existential dread was really able to set in!”

“I think in general we also need to talk more about how hard this has been without trying to one-up each other about who’s had it the hardest,” another student said.

The gradual reopening of campus and resumption of lab work comes with an expectation of personal productivity and functionality. Some might interpret this to mean that we should be adjusting to and coping with this “new normal,” refocusing on our work, and getting back on track. However, as reflected in the statements above, not everyone’s timeline is in sync.

A member of the Tri-Institutional community put it simply. “No one is okay,” he said. “We’re living through a global pandemic. Anyone who tells you they are okay is lying to themselves.”

The seating area outside Bass remains largely deserted as students and employees refrain from gathering for meals and socialization. Photo by Audrey Goldfarb

What It’s Like to Get a COVID-19 Antibody Test in NYC

Anna Amelianchik

Antibody testing for COVID-19 is now widely available in New York City. Unlike the polymerase chain reaction test used to detect coronavirus from the infamous nasal and throat swab, the antibody test does not determine whether you currently have the disease. Instead, it can detect antibodies against COVID-19 present in blood and determine whether you had COVID-19 in the past. The body produces antibodies to facilitate the destruction of invading pathogens, such as SARS-CoV-2, by immune cells. Antibody tests are designed to detect two specific types of antibodies, IgG and/or IgM. Patients with COVID-19 develop IgM antibodies shortly after the virus attacks. IgM antibodies are then replaced with IgG antibodies which become detectable in the blood of COVID-19 patients approximately ten days after they become symptomatic. While all patients recovering from COVID-19 develop antibodies against SARS-CoV-2, scientists and health authorities are debating whether the presence of antibodies protects people from reinfection. In addition, antibody levels may wane over time effectively erasing any acquired immunity. For instance, a 2006 study showed that antibodies against SARS-CoV, a coronavirus closely related to the virus that ravaged the world in the past months, lasted for several months to two years, although all study participants had low antibody levels after about fifteen months. While the longitudinal profile of antibodies against SARS-CoV-2 is still unclear, a predictive modeling study showed that, in the absence of recurrent vaccination, short-term immunity (~ten months) against SARS-CoV-2 would lead to annual outbreaks of the novel coronavirus, while long-term immunity (~two years) would cause biennial outbreaks. However, it is critically important to conduct antibody tests to better understand the impact of the novel coronavirus on communities that are heavily affected by it. 

Over a two-week period in May, the NYC Department of Health conducted a citywide antibody survey and tested approximately 70,000 NYC residents for the presence of antibodies against SARS-CoV-2. Launched in partnership with BioReference Laboratories, the study was designed to help health authorities better understand the spread of COVID-19, how the body responds to the virus that causes it, how often the virus causes an infection with symptoms, the frequency of specific symptoms, and risk factors for this disease. “For New York, a city that has been seriously impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, this type of information will be of great value in helping healthcare professionals to analyze the presence and progression of the disease in order to identify at risk populations for possible early intervention,” said Jon R. Cohen, M.D., the Executive Chairman of BioReference Laboratories, in a press release posted on the BioReference website on May 7. The antibody test was offered to NYC residents for free with testing sites available in all five boroughs. Several members of our editorial board participated in this antibody survey at the testing site closest to The Rockefeller University campus in Long Island City, Queens. Located inside a repurposed warehouse, the testing site prioritized the safety of study participants with temperature scans at the entrance and free personal protective equipment (PPE). Several blood draw stations were spaced out to allow for a distance of at least six feet between them. Colorful tape on the floor indicated the direction of foot traffic and prevented crowding. The nurses, in full PPE, drew blood through vein puncture and collected one tube of blood per participant. For those who filled out the screening survey online, the entire process could take less than ten minutes. To determine the presence of antibodies in blood samples, BioReference used the Roche Elecsys test with 99.8% specificity and 100% sensitivity. The results of the test were available online on the BioReference portal 24-48 hours after the test was administered. As of this writing, the NYC Department of Health paused the recruitment of new participants for this survey. However, you can still access antibody testing in NYC, often with $0 co-pay for those with private health insurance, Medicaid, or Medicare. Some testing sites might also provide free antibody tests for those without health insurance. For example, Mount Sinai is looking for volunteers to donate convalescent plasma used to treat patients with COVID-19. They are screening the members of the public who have previously had the symptoms of COVID-19 and waiving fees for antibody tests. To participate, fill out this survey. For the full list of testing sites available near you, visit the New York State Department of Health website.

Lace Up for Immune Health

Anna Amelianchik

Exercise is critically important for physical and mental health because it helps stave off diseases related to obesity and reduces the symptoms of anxiety and depression. However, there is reason to believe that exercise might also protect against infectious diseases. In fact, a 2010 study showed that near-daily aerobic activity and the perception of being physically fit significantly reduced the frequency and severity of respiratory infections in both men and women during a twelve-week study period. Although we don’t know whether physical activity can help protect us against SARS-CoV-2 specifically, studies in exercise immunology, a relatively new but increasingly important area of scientific research, show that exercise may give your immune system a significant boost.

Short bouts (under sixty minutes) of moderate and vigorous exercise, such as walking, running, or cycling, may enhance the activity of innate immune cells, such as macrophages and natural killer cells. Macrophages help the body fight infection by engulfing and destroying invading pathogens (e.g., viruses and bacteria). Macrophages also secrete molecules that promote the activation of natural killer cells which can detect and kill infected cells to stop the infection from spreading.

In addition, aerobic exercise can help orchestrate the adaptive immune response by mobilizing two main types of lymphocytes: T-cells and B-cells. T-cells kill infected cells and use messenger molecules, known as cytokines, to increase the overall activation of the immune system. T-cells can also directly activate B-cells, which help us fight off bacteria and viruses by producing antibodies that “tag” invaders and help other immune cells eliminate them. In the short run, exercise may enhance immunosurveillance by recirculating immune cells found within various tissues and organs in the body, such as the lymph nodes and spleen, back into the bloodstream. In the long run, regular exercise may help ward off infection by redistributing immune cells to the organs favored by viruses and bacteria, such as mucosal membranes and the lungs.

Early-stage research shows that exercise may also promote defense against infectious diseases by increasing the production of antioxidants. Our bodies produce an antioxidant molecule known as extracellular superoxide dismutase (EcSOD), which breaks down free radicals that damage cell membranes, proteins, and DNA. Elevated EcSOD in blood and vital organs, including the lungs, may protect against acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS), a common and often lethal complication of COVID-19.

Finally, exercise may boost your immune system indirectly, by reducing stress and improving sleep. In fact, aerobic exercise reduces the levels of stress hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol, which can interfere with our immune system’s ability to fight infection. Regular exercise can also help normalize disrupted sleep, which is crucial for the proper function of immune cells.

If you reside in New York City, you might not be able to get back to your gym or your favorite fitness class for a while, but there are several excellent alternatives that can help you stay fit and boost your immune defenses while social distancing:

Walk, run, or cycle responsibly. If you are an avid runner, continue to enjoy this solitary form of exercise, but take precautions, such as wearing a face covering and staying at least six feet away from other people in parks and on sidewalks. If wearing a surgical mask or a thick cloth mask while running is uncomfortable, consider investing in moisture-wicking multifunctional headwear. If you are new to running, make sure to start easy (several apps, including Nike Run Club and 5K Runner: Couch to 5K might help) and choose the right pair of running shoes to avoid injuries. Finally, if running is too hard on your joints, a brisk walk or a bike ride will offer similar benefits as long as you practice social distancing.

Replace a stair stepping machine with actual stairs. If your building or street has a mostly-empty staircase, fire up your legs and glutes by walking or jogging up and down the stairs,giving yourself a thirty second break between circuits. Mix it up by doing additional exercises such as calf raises, squats, or seesaw lunges at the top of each flight.

Do bodyweight exercises at home. With a little bit of space and some imagination, you can reach your fitness goals even during a pandemic. Follow workout classes on YouTube or Instagram Live, take advantage of Nike’s promotion that allows you to access Nike Training Club Premium for free, or start a fun exercise challenge with your friends. Rockefeller’s own Tim Blanchard offers strength/cardio classes via Zoom (you can also access Tim’s classes on YouTube). If mountain climbers and burpees aren’t your thing, you can get your heart rate up by joining TikTok dance challenges. Who knows, you might even become the right kind of viral!