‘We are not out of the woods’: Dr. Megan Ranney says Biden’s COVID-19 actions bring hope but challenges remain ahead

“We are in the darkest moment of this pandemic—it’s not going to go away in the short term.”

Dr. Megan Ranney at the inauguration of President Joe Biden.
Dr. Megan Ranney at the inauguration of President Joe Biden. –Courtesy of Megan Ranney

Dr. Megan Ranney was caring for patients at one of Rhode Island’s COVID-19 field hospitals when she got a call from Rep. Jim Langevin. He invited her to attend the inauguration of President Joe Biden with him as his guest.

The moment was one of discordance for Ranney.

Receiving the invitation, she felt hopeful, looking forward to what the new administration would bring in the fight against the pandemic. Yet, the feeling contrasted strongly with her reality in that moment — caring for people in a temporary setting because the state’s hospitals had been overwhelmed for weeks by a surge in COVID-19.

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Ranney, an emergency physician and director of the Brown Lifespan Center for Digital Health, has been working on the front lines of patient care since the pandemic began. She called attending the inauguration on Wednesday one of the most moving experiences of her life.

“I am not usually a big fan of pomp and circumstance, but being there and watching the peaceful transition of power, watching our vice president and president take this oath of office that has been said so many times before, was just so meaningful in light of all of the events that we have been through — in the last four years and particularly in the last two weeks,” Ranney told Boston.com.

Seeing Vice President Kamala Harris take the oath of office in particular was “incredible,” she said.

“I kept having to pinch myself to remind myself that it was real and to try to soak in the beauty of the moment,” Ranney said.

It wasn’t just the major events of the day that the doctor is holding close. There were “little bits of humanity” she caught from her view of the dais that took her breath away.

Watching first lady Dr. Jill Biden touch her husband’s shoulder after he sat back down after taking the oath of office.

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Observing Meena Harris, the niece of the vice president, with her children, trying to keep the young girls happy and quiet while soaking in the historic moment around her.

Seeing Amanda Gorman, the 22-year-old inaugural poet, meet the Obamas.

“She kind of walked away and did this little shimmy of excitement,” Ranney said. “And you could feel her amazement at being there. And all of our amazement at her gorgeousness and her beauty and her poetry. You felt it … Those were the things that just sat with me. That we’re back in an era of humanity and honesty in our government.”

Dr. Megan Ranney with Rep. Jim Langevin at the inauguration. —Courtesy of Megan Ranney

In the hours and days after his inauguration, Biden has taken a series of immediate directives to ramp up the nation’s fight against COVID-19, including speeding up the production of supplies, increasing testing capacity, and requiring that masks be worn during interstate travel.

Ranney said as a health care worker, she already feels a sense of relief and hope with the change in leadership and direction.

Seeing the executive orders and statements made by Biden and from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which is being led by the former infectious disease chief for Mass. General Hospital, has been “amazing,” she said.

It wasn’t until the immediate changes began that Ranney realized how much of a weight she carried daily due to the previous lack of federal leadership and action.

“[The Biden administration’s] not going to be perfect, and it’s not going to get fixed overnight, but the fact that the driving philosophy of this administration around COVID is taking it seriously, just means the world,” Ranney said.

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Even with the initial changes, as it stands now Ranney said the United States is not ready to meet the challenges posed by the variant of the virus, which was first detected in the United Kingdom and is known as B.1.1.7. The variant is projected to become the dominant source of COVID-19 infection in America by March, according to the CDC.

While it does not appear to cause more severe illness, it is believed the variant spreads more easily and that it will drive rising cases, which experts say is likely to result in more hospitalizations and deaths. With the highest death toll from the pandemic in the world, the United States has already lost more than 410,000 people to COVID-19.

Since the nation’s public health infrastructure is “woefully under-supported,” Ranney said the Biden administration will have to take “deep dives” into the on-the-ground reality of what supplies and what vaccines are actually available in order to create and effectively implement a strategy for COVID-19 prevention.

Whether enough updates and improvements can be made in the coming weeks to meet the challenges of the virus variant remains to be seen, she said. But what got handed off to the administration did not leave the nation in a place to effectively fight it, according to the doctor.

“This pandemic is still quite real,” Ranney said. “We’re still having thousands of Americans die a day. We are not out of the woods at all — the level of community spread is still staggeringly high, certainly in Massachusetts and Rhode Island but also across the country. And it may feel like a new day, that everything changed [Wednesday], but the reality is the virus is still tremendously prevalent. And if you have not yet been fully vaccinated, you are very much still at risk.”

As the administration continues to push forward with fighting the virus, Ranney said she wants to see Biden and his teams focus on improving vaccine supplies, distribution, and the last mile of delivery in particular.

That focus is essential since vaccines are “how we get out of this,” Ranney said.

Secondly, she said she wants to see the administration focus on support and planning for preventing transmission of COVID-19 while vaccines continue to be administered.

“We are in the darkest moment of this pandemic — it’s not going to go away in the short term,” she said. “So it’s about facilitating mask wearing and distancing and helping schools stay safe. That’s the second part that is just so meaningful — having that consistent messaging and clear guidelines around what individual businesses and schools and states can and should be doing.”


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