14 March 2020 - The UN’s Medical Director Jillian Farmer, sat down with Melissa Fleming, Under-Secretary-General for the Department of Global Communications (DGC), on Thursday evening, to discuss the impact so far of the coronavirus pandemic, and what staff need to know about the disease.  

Dr. Farmer acknowledged that while she had managed significant epidemics – such as Ebola in West Africa in 2014 and more recently the spread of the Zika virus – she said the COVID-19 pandemic was the first to directly impact New York City. 

The difference with those others is that “there is just no way to know if the person you’re with might be able to infect you or not”. 

“I think that there is a lot of misinformation out there causing more fear than the illness warrants”, she said.  

Dr. Farmer maintained the importance of being aware and proactive but to approach the pandemic “in a calm and measured way”. 

Putting it into perspective, she said that there was a greater likelihood of being involved in a “pedestrian accident than to end up in intensive care from this virus”. 

While acknowledging that “we can’t get to the situation of zero risk”, Dr. Farmer maintained that by reducing the staffing footprint, exposure due to commuting, and the volume of people using UN Headquarters, the numbers using the complex has been “successfully driven down”, on top of temporary closure to the public, decreasing the risk.  

Key to know 

“The most important message” from the Centers for Disease Control, the US Government agency, is to “keep calm and wash your hands”, she said. 

She said that like everyone else, staff need to prioritize hand washing and hand hygiene. 

“You don’t need alcohol hand rub and you don’t need to pay $25 for a tiny bottle” of hand sanitizer, she said but underscored the importance of “maintaining your distance, particularly from anyone who is unwell”.  

Dr. Farmer also asked that staff “flip their thinking” about coming to work when sick. 

If unsure, rather than report for duty, she urged staff to stay home until they are certain that they are well.  

“If in any doubt, don’t come to the workplace, protect your colleagues and then seek advice”, she stated. 

Dr. Farmer stated that eventually, we will be thinking about COVID-19 as we currently think about colds and flu. 

“I don’t think we will see a permanent and dramatic behaviour change”, she said.  

At risk 

Diseases spread rapidly through a community when you have less than 90 per cent immunity, or so-called “herd immunity”. 

The World Health Organization (WHO) has called COVID-19 a pandemic because “this is a completely new thing that no one has ever been seen before”, which is also why “we are starting from zero immunity”, explained the UN medical chief. 

The current aim is to slow the spread through social distancing, hand hygiene, not touching our faces and being careful to “engage in hand hygiene when we return home to loved ones”, Dr. Farmer said.  

She addressed the confusion surrounding vulnerability, noting that New York City had just declared those aged 50 and above, officially at higher risk. 

Because your immune system changes over time, “the older you are the more vulnerable you are”, Dr. Farmer spelled out, adding that those with pre-existing medical conditions are also at risk, citing lung disease, hypertension, heart failure and poorly-controlled diabetes. 

Also at risk, are those with impaired immune functions, like a recovering chemotherapy patient, or those taking immuno-suppressant drugs, like steroids.   

Top concern: Getting tested 

Recalling that the UN operates in some of the most dangerous and difficult locations on earth “and we don’t blink”, Dr. Farmer said she was confident staff can deal with the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic.  

She encouraged everyone to be “pragmatic” and “not obsess about testing”. 

When testing is unavailable, we manage it as an infectious disease, which is to “stay home until you’re well and…then for 72 hours after that”. 

UN Medical 

Dr. Farmer runs the entire internal healthcare system of the UN, onsite health services, occupational health services, all medical administrative benefits related to health, and the governance and oversite of all the 400 UN-operated health facilities around the word. 

Since mid-January, getting the entire workforce ready to cope during what is now a pandemic, has been a key priority, she stressed.