Ellen Eaton

Dr. Ellen Eaton, M.D. (Assistant Professor, Infectious Diseases) in June 2020.

A Dothan native, now an assistant professor in the University of Alabama Birmingham Infectious Diseases Division, says “the medical community, folks on the front lines are exhausted” treating record-high new coronavirus cases and responding in various ways to the outbreak.

Front-line health care workers are juggling additional duties while many are undergoing pay cuts due to financial losses at hospitals, adding to the already stressful hospital environment.

Dr. Ellen Eaton, a 1999 Houston Academy graduate, said she has been working nights, weekends, and “everything in between” trying to keep up with her increased patient care duties, creating policy and advising institutions in the Jefferson County community, and educating the public on preventative care.

“I think there’s a somewhat casual approach that a lot of the community has; there’s not a lot of mask use,” Eaton said. “People feel like UAB, or the medical community in general, is overreacting.”

Hospital staffs, however, have a nuanced perspective of the crisis. Eaton said the environment on the acute medical floor and intensive care unit has changed as the virus has taken hold.

She began seeing coronavirus patients in May, providing infection disease consulting.

“The physicians are very focused,” Eaton said. “There’s a somber mood. … It’s a very intense atmosphere.”

Her Facebook page

Starting early in the coronavirus fight, Eaton has been trying to educate people to keep them abreast of new developments and to dispel rumors about the virus from nonreputable sources.

Eaton said she regularly saw memes and YouTube clips on social media sharing potentially harmful misinformation.

She created a Facebook page to share medically based research and informative articles and to give her insight on the importance of wearing personal protective equipment and social distancing.

“I started the page to fight misinformation,” she said. “I wanted a way to rapidly share evidence-based data, and I wanted it to have a reputable voice. My sole goal here is to get accurate information out there.”

Initially, Eaton shared information aimed at vulnerable populations like nursing homes and seniors, but now she shares more information geared toward parents.

As a mother of two, Eaton said the potential complications in children who contract the virus are “very disturbing.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports few children who have contracted coronavirus may not have common symptoms associated with adult infection, but could develop multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children.

She has amassed 7,000 followers on her page: Dr. Ellen Eaton — Coronavirus Updates.

Virus is serious

Still, Eaton worries how much worse the pandemic may get before Alabama residents begin to take the virus seriously by abiding by the CDC and Alabama Public Health Department recommendations.

“I feel like we keep telling the same message over and over. What will it take for people to listen?” Eaton said.

Her colleagues working in coronavirus hot spots like New York see a different normal among the populace: People stay inside whenever possible, and those on the streets wear masks.

“They’ve had a very tangible tragedy in their community,” Eaton said. “Most of them have had family members that had died. Some of them, they’ve had multiple family members that have died.

“My hope is that people in Alabama take this seriously before we get to that point. … We will have a massive tragedy if we wait until everyone is personally affected.”

In an interview Thursday with The Washington Post, CDC Director Robert Redfield estimated that 5 to 8% of the population had been infected and around 125,000 Americans have already died from the virus.

Eaton pointed out that at least 60% of the population need to become infected with the virus to develop antibodies against it to achieve herd immunity. If that happened over a short time, the number of deaths and hospitalizations would be “astronomical,” Eaton said.

“It would be mass casualties that our country hasn’t seen,” she said. “You want to reach herd immunity over a very slow process. You want to have the resources to hospitalize them; you want to have enough ventilators, PPE, which there continues to be a shortage of.

“If everyone is going to get infected, you want it to happen at a very slow pace so the health care system can keep up, and not collapse like we’ve seen happen in other areas.”

Testing vaccines

UAB staffers and biomedical research firms around the globe are testing vaccines and researching treatments for the virus, but definitive conclusions might not arrive until late this year or early 2021

Eaton worries about how a novel virus could worsen someone’s condition with other comorbid respiratory viruses, like influenza and respiratory syncytial virus, in the fall and winter, which makes her role as a policy adviser even more poignant as schools plan to reopen in late August.

She has spent a lot of time advising local school systems on best policies to implement when reopening, as research sheds more light on the virus’s symptoms and transmission.

“What we’ve learned really over the last month is that it transmits easily through shared air in shared spaces,” Eaton said. “So things like waiting in lines, play dates, sitting next to each other in the cafeteria, things that put them in close contact should be avoided.”

Research, however, suggests that kids who are exposed to the virus are less susceptible to contracting the illness. If they do get COVID-19, they’re less likely to get really sick and less likely to transmit it to adults.

Eaton is in favor of schools reopening, citing evidence that kids do better in structured academic environments with opportunities to develop socially and emotionally. She foresees that schools should consider virtual options if shutdowns and quarantines are enacted as outbreaks occur.

Eaton also works with the Jefferson County Incident Management Team to help manage the county’s emergency response to the outbreak.

A normal dayEaton’s normal daily work has not slowed, either, but has actually picked up due to the virus’ economic impact in the Jefferson County area.

On Mondays, she holds an HIV and substance abuse treatment clinic. Many of her patients are having a harder time finding housing and jobs.

Most of her work is in research, and Eaton is trying to incorporate the coronavirus’s impact in her observations. Over the last several years at UAB, she has studied the impact of infectious diseases on people who use intravenous drugs and have HIV with grants from medical research institutions.

After graduating from Houston Academy, Eaton earned her bachelor’s degree at Vanderbilt University, before getting her doctorate at UAB in 2007. She then went to Stanford University to study internal medicine and worked at Duke University for a short period before returning to UAB to study infectious diseases and later becoming a full-time staff member in 2016.

Today, she also spends time writing and publishing papers and applying for grant funding — some pertaining to COVID-19 research.

She said she believes the pandemic has made people realize that Alabama needs more experts in infectious diseases, epidemiology and public health, citing Alabama’s statistics as one of the worst states in the country for HIV outcomes and prevalence of sexually transmitted diseases.

Although some clinical trials have slowed due to the volume of coronavirus patients at UAB, Eaton says there still isn’t much chance for time off, though she is opposed to air travel for the foreseeable future.

Her only respite has been visiting her in-laws in the Wiregrass area, where Eaton says open spaces allow her family to easily social distance.

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