It’s been almost a full calendar year since COVID-19 was classified as a global pandemic—a year that has defied logic, suspended understanding, and impacted just about everyone. The battle against the virus is being fought on many different fronts, and University School of Milwaukee alumni are among many individuals leading the charge. We spoke to alumni in the fields of supply chain management, medicine, journalism, and technology, to learn about the challenges they have faced and the lessons they have learned.
Elisa Basnight ’87
Senior vice president supply chain, biomedical services at American Red Cross.
Bennett Huffman ’18
Carnegie Mellon University senior; UX/UI designer and web developer for Novid.
Kelly Cannon ’09
Northwestern University Medill School of Journalism, Master of Science in Journalism; and 2020 Pulitzer Center Reporting Fellow.
William Tollefsen ’98 M.D.
Chief medical officer South Shore Health Express; vice chair emergency medicine: director emergency medical services; and regional medical director, state of Massachusetts.
Working in the Midst of a Global Pandemic is a New Experience for Everybody
Dr. William Tollefsen ’98 is highly prepared in the fight against a global pandemic. He has a master’s in medical science from Boston University, earned his M.D. from New York Medical College, received emergency medicine training from Harvard University, and is board certified in emergency medicine, emergency pediatrics, and emergency medical services. His team actively manages emerging infectious diseases and has multiple processes in place for handling potentially infected patients, based on their experience with previous SARS, MERS, and Ebola epidemics. But even he was caught off guard in the early days of the pandemic. “We knew it was a coronavirus,” he said. “We’ve all studied coronaviruses in medical school. But this one was different.” The widely varied symptoms amongst patients, combined with asymptomatic transmission and skyrocketing rates of infection, made COVID-19 a tough opponent.
In the technology realm, Bennett Huffman ’18 was also facing challenges. The Carnegie Mellon University senior was tapped to serve as the UX/UI designer and web developer for Novid, the world’s first pre-exposure notification app. The app keeps users informed about their personal network, allowing them to notify or be notified of a positive COVID-19 test from someone in their network while remaining completely anonymous. Huffman’s job is to make the app easy to use for—literally—everyone in the entire world. “There’s no precedent for the right way to design a contact tracing app that’s understandable or that works,” he said. “Usually you try to design an app for a specific group of people, but we want the entire world to download this app. Trying to get that right as a college student is a little bit overwhelming sometimes, as thrilling as it is.”
Be Open to Making Adjustments—Quickly
In early February of 2020, Kelly Cannon ’09 found herself at the U.S. Army headquarters in Wiesbaden, Germany, as part of her master’s in journalism program. While there, she started to pay more attention to the emerging virus. “As a new reporter based in Washington, D.C. in the midst of an election year, there’s tons of veteran journalists who get every scoop,” she said. “I thought, if this coronavirus becomes a global pandemic—which at the time it was not—what would that mean for all of us? That’s when I started looking into it, because I was genuinely curious.”
Elisa Basnight ’87 was not even one year into her role of leading a new organization at American Red Cross when the pandemic hit. Some initiatives, like conducting site visits around the country to meet her team, were put on hold while others, like developing business continuity playbooks, were fast-tracked. “The new playbooks—plans for the loss of multiple sites, simultaneously, all around the country—gave us a game plan for how to ensure our operations would continue while keeping our employees safe, which is our number-one priority,” Basnight explained. Transportation was another big issue. Typically, her team uses a combination of ground and air shipment to move product. Because of the pandemic, however, air cargo capacity in the U.S. was reduced by as much as 60%. “My team had to improvise creative ways to ensure transportation continued throughout our vast network of sites and warehouses.”
On the medical side, Tollefsen’s paramedics adjusted their protocols when responding to 911 calls. Emergency responders modified the way they went into homes to treat patients, wore appropriate-fitting personal protective equipment, and ensured ambulances had proper decontamination equipment. The hospital converted an area of the emergency department into a dedicated space for patients with COVID-like illnesses, and doctors began keeping IV pumps outside of patients’ rooms using extended IV tubing so that nurses could adjust medication without physically going into a room. “It wasn’t that we didn’t want to go in; it was that it would be a waste of PPE just to turn an infusion up or down,” said Tollefsen.
Look for the Silver Linings
The experience Huffman has gained while at Novid has boosted his confidence and solidified his desire to pursue user experience design as a career, but more than that, it has given him fulfillment to know he is fighting for a bigger cause. “This is probably one of the defining moments for my generation, where we can really make a difference,” he said. “I just happened to be at the right place at the right time.”
Although she was relatively new to journalism, once Cannon identified COVID-19 reporting as a way for her to differentiate herself amongst veteran reporters covering other stories like the 2020 presidential election, she began to uncover more angles to pursue. “Even in the early days of the pandemic I was always focused on the vaccine aspect,” she said. “As the pandemic progressed I wanted to investigate communities that have been disproportionately impacted by the virus, and how we can support those communities in getting access to a vaccine.” Cannon submitted a proposal for her reporting to the Pulitzer Center and was chosen as one of its 2020 Reporting Fellows, an opportunity that provided funding for her to travel to Arizona, Utah, Wyoming, and South Dakota to speak directly with Native Americans and indigenous communities. She is reporting on how the virus has affected tribal communities and the barriers they face in accessing a safe and effective COVID-19 vaccine. Her first story was published by NBC News.
Basnight’s supply chain team consists of 7,000 individuals who manufacture, test, and distribute 40% of the nation’s blood products and services. In April of 2020, the American Red Cross launched an initiative to identify, qualify, and safely collect convalescent plasma from recovered COVID-19 individuals. The program provides critical support to those fighting the pandemic and inspires hope for her. “I am so proud of our supply chain team and my fellow Red Crossers for their vital roles, which have positively impacted thousands of lives,” she said.
Being Part of a Good Team Helps
“I’m a firm believer that crisis breeds camaraderie,” said Basnight, who cited multiple examples of team members going above and beyond to ensure that the organization could fulfill its mission with minimal interruptions. As a way to boost morale and make further connections virtually, Basnight asked members of her team to submit photos of whatever makes them smile, which she then shared in her quarterly newsletter. “We had a huge outpouring of photos of babies, weddings, pets, and more—all things that make people smile.”
For Huffman, who routinely works 12-hour days, including on weekends, it helps to be surrounded by people he genuinely admires. “I love our team,” he said. “We’re not in this to make money; we’re just a bunch of people who care about fighting a global issue. Everybody pours their hearts into it and that’s what makes the experience so awesome.” Tollefsen witnessed many examples of individuals pitching in to help when his hospital was overrun, including a member of the hospital’s finance team walking around the hospital wiping down doorknobs and light switches, and a data analyst pushing a patient on a stretcher. “That’s the kind of leadership we’ve seen across health systems in the whole country; it’s not a unique story here,” he said. “But the general population doesn’t see what happens on the inside because we’re shut down. And I wish they did.”
So Does Lots of Communication
After traveling to the southwest to report on the pandemic’s effect on tribal communities, Cannon had to continue her research from home. “I’ve had so many phone calls, Zoom meetings, and virtual briefings with industry experts and other journalists,” she said. “I’m on the phone all day.”
Basnight held daily phone calls with her leadership team and critical stakeholders, handled ad-hoc crisis calls throughout the day, and distributed a daily report to all staff to ensure system synchronization. Tollefsen, meanwhile, had twice-daily calls with his emergency department staff and hospital administrators. “If an issue came up on our 6 a.m. call, we tried to have it fixed in time for our afternoon call at 3 p.m.,” he said.
Things Will Get Tough, But You’re Not in This Alone
In addition to COVID-19, Cannon also had to report on the presidential election—her first as a journalist. While working for Andrea Mitchell at NBC News Washington, Cannon reached out to an old mentor for support—Dr. Henry Wend, Upper School history teacher and director of USM’s Global Scholars program—who recommended a list of books and other resources. “The fact that I’m able to call my high school history teacher and ask him questions that inform my reporting—no one does that. It’s such a gift,” she said. “I value the relationships I’ve been able to keep from USM.”
Huffman’s experience as a college student has drastically changed in the past year, but he’s learned to focus on the things he can control. “It’s empowering to think that there’s a lot of small things you can do to make a huge difference,” he said. “Like choosing to have a virtual meeting instead of in-person, or wearing a mask, or downloading an app like Novid. COVID-19 is a huge problem, but if you look at what you can do as an individual, the small things make a huge difference. It’s how we’ll end up defeating the virus.”
For Basnight, the spring of 2020 was an especially difficult time. When three of her employees died as a result of COVID-19, she reached out to her close friends—many of whom she has known since the 3rd grade at USM—for support. “They told me they were praying for me and my team and I was just so grateful for my USM family and the bonds that we’ve developed and continue to strengthen over many years.”
Spring 2020 was difficult for Tollefsen, too. At one point, his hospital had a 25% mortality rate with a refrigerated trailer serving as a temporary morgue. When things were at their worst, others stepped in to help. “The outpouring of assistance from our community was unreal,” he said. “Every day a restaurant delivered food, or another huge box of masks showed up.” One day, at dusk, his hospital was surrounded by police cars, fire trucks, and ambulances with their sirens going to cheer on everyone working in the hospital. “To see my own ambulance crews, men and women I know who are in the thick of it themselves,” he said, fighting back tears, “that was a super powerful experience. That’s the kind of stuff that really helped support the entire hospital.”
If You’re Lucky, You Might Get to Interview Dr. Fauci
“I was one of the first reporters in the country to interview Dr. [Anthony] Fauci. I asked him how many doses of a vaccine we would need if this became a pandemic. He said hundreds of millions, maybe billions. It just really stunned me.” – Kelly Cannon ’09
Searching For Our New Normal
For Basnight, the reality of life since the start of COVID-19 hasn’t fully crystalized, even one year later. “What I call the COVID accelerant—the pandemic as a driving force for change and innovation—is huge. I believe the consequences for our businesses, organizations, economies, and societies will continue to play out in 2021 and beyond,” she said. Elisa Basnight ’87
You Might Have a Job Interview at Midnight
“It was a Sunday in early March, around 11 p.m., and my friend asked if I’d be interested in working on this new app. I said, ‘Sure, I’m interested.’ He replied and said, ‘Okay, Po-Shen [Loh, founder of Novid] will call you in a few minutes for an interview.’ At this point it was almost midnight and I was pretty tired, but I guess I did okay.” – Bennett Huffman ’18
Timing is Everything
Tollefsen worked for several years—even getting a law changed—to establish a program called Mobile Integrated Health (MIH), which uses paramedics’ skills to provide medical treatment in a patient’s home. “We went live with MIH on March 3, 2020,” he said. “And during the first wave of the pandemic, the MIH team took care of 149 patients who otherwise would’ve been admitted to the hospital. It was the most serendipitous timing.” – Dr. William Tollefsen ’98