In This Episode
The past year and more were filled with extreme ups and extreme downs, and as we reflect on that time, we’re looking back on some conversations that moved us, informed us, and made us smile. Today’s show includes interviews with 6th grade special education teacher Monice Seward, NIAID director Dr. Anthony Fauci, and Sana Khan, a student of public health at the University of Arizona.
Akilah Hughes: It’s Tuesday, June 1st, I’m Akilah Hughes.
Gideon Resnick: And I’m Gideon Resnick, and this is What A Day, the podcast for grill masters and grill masters in training.
Akilah Hughes: That’s right. Shout out to everybody who did some meat, a lot of people who did some veggies, and a lot of people who just hung back and didn’t want to get burned. On today’s show, we do something a little different. So we’ve learned a lot in the past year and more about not just the coronavirus, but about America and each other.
Gideon Resnick: Yes, some of it was not pretty, but we are getting through it together. So we wanted to revisit some of our favorite interviews from the past few months with people who are making a difference in the world during the pandemic.
Akilah Hughes: First up, Monise Seward, we heard from her a few times throughout the course of last year. She’s a sixth grade special education teacher in Georgia. And when we caught up last fall, right as the school year was about to start, she talked about doing all she could to keep teaching for her kids, but also dealing with the criticism from the school board members who said teachers like her weren’t doing enough.
[Monise Seward] It was not the fault of teachers not knowing how to use Zoom, ok? We were in a situation that many of us had never experienced before. None of us were here when the Spanish flu was around so we didn’t we didn’t know what a, what a pandemic looked like, right? And previous outbreaks were contained, for the most part they were contained, right? We didn’t have to stop going to school when the Ebola virus was, was out there. We didn’t have to stop going to school. So for someone to insinuate that my colleagues and I—and I’m speaking for all the teachers in my district—that my colleagues and I were part of the reason why engagement was low, it was very offensive. Because I know a lot of us were struggling through that time. Because, yeah, education is not perfect, but, damn it, we love what we do.
[Akilah Hughes] Mm hmm.
[Monise Seward] And despite the low pay, the disrespect, the fact that we spend our own money on classroom supplies and sometimes food for our students and whatever else they need, we still show up every year. So for that, that one thing to be blamed on low engagement, when nobody has taken the time to talk to those families to find out why their kids maybe weren’t logging in every day. Or reached out to the teachers and say: hey, what do you need? Because it took us about, maybe, I want to say three or four weeks into that emergency learning before our district leadership even pushed out anything to us about social emotional needs of the staff.
[Akilah Hughes] Right.
[Monise Seward] Because we’re dealing with this, too, right?
[Akilah Hughes] Yeah, exactly.
[Monise Seward] Almost all of us have kids too. And then as the time went on, people that I know from work had people who were affected, directly affected by COVID-19, people who, they were losing family members. So for you to say that engagement was low because of Zoom, I mean, you don’t have to be a Rhode Scholar to work Zoom.
[Akilah Hughes] [laughs] Exactly.
[Monise Seward] Everything’s labeled in Zoom. If we can’t read, we wouldn’t be in the classroom.
[Gideon Resnick] And in terms of the, the kind of power that teachers can exercise if there is stuff to be done there, we’ve seen in some other cities and districts, teachers’ unions being the people that are the ones that are kind of putting a stop to some of the ill-advised plans from other people. So are you in a union yourself? And if so, what sort of actions have they been taking, or what conversations are going on around that?
[Monise Seward] Oh, we don’t have a teachers’ union here. We’re in a “right to work” state, so there were some teachers in the district where I live who were protesting at the county office for the past few days. There are some teachers from that district who’ve also resigned.
[Akilah Hughes] Yeah.
[Monise Seward] Because they, they either they don’t have childcare for their kids or they have a spouse who’s immunocompromised and they don’t want to take anything home to them because if masks are not going to be mandated and if you can’t social distance, why would I want to roll the dice and go to work, even though I love what I do, go to work in a classroom when I still have 20 plus kids in the classroom, and then take something home to my spouse or to my kids or to another family member who may be, you know, dealing with underlying health conditions.
[Akilah Hughes] Right.
[Monise Seward] So but you know what, though? This is a perfect storm. We don’t have a union here, but, I think even though we’re, we’re pushing back against this, it’s going to make, it’s going to make things change. We won’t see it immediately, but I think now that we have more Black people running for school board and winning in my district, and people getting more civically engaged to find out what’s going on in our local school district, to see, you know, if you’re in a county with the highest number of new cases, why are you trying to force teachers to go back into a building?
[Akilah Hughes] Mm hmm.
[Monise Seward] So right now, we’re limited to what we can do, but I do think that gradually we’re going to start seeing some things shift. Because, we some of us are not accustomed to seeing people raise hell.
[Akilah Hughes] Yeah.
[Monise Seward] Some people are not accustomed to it, and I think now that some of these people are seeing other people step out in front. And do this, they’re going to be like: OK, so people are doing this, and I wouldn’t be by myself—even though this is a, this is a non-union state. So there are some considerations you have to make in the back of your mind: what would I do if I’m not teaching, how am I going to take care of my family? Because believe me, I’ve been sitting here thinking of a plan too, figure out what I’m going to do to take care of my family. But more people are willing to speak up now. More people are willing to speak up now, because they don’t—who wants to wake up and say: I’m want to go to work knowing that I might get COVID-19, that I might die in 14 days.
Akilah Hughes: That was Monise Seward, a sixth grade special education teacher in Georgia, who we spoke to last fall.
Gideon Resnick: Yeah, and another conversation we wanted to revisit from the past few months, the guy your parents fell in love with on MSNBC: Dr. Anthony Fauci, the Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. And even when we spoke in February, he was preparing us for what we know more about now, that as variants spread and take hold, that those of us who are vaccinated might need a booster shot.
[Dr. Antony Fauci] I would not be surprised if for a period of time we would have to give an occasional booster to get one a more complete protection in the global community. And number two, to get to the point where the level is so low that you don’t really have much transmission, sort of what we did with smallpox, with polio and with measles. But one of the things that I think leans towards the need to continue to have to vaccinate people is that if you don’t get the global level of infection down, there will always be a threat of variance arising wherever Africa, Asia, South America. And then even though you think you’re protected in this country by importation of virus, someone comes into the country with a variant that is not protected by the vaccine. Then you’ve got a problem that would lead to what you’re alluding to is the possibility it might sort of like be what we have to do with influenza. I hope that’s not the case and I believe that we can avoid it if we do a good job of getting the whole world vaccinated with effective vaccines. Yeah, that’s
Gideon Resnick: right. Yeah. There is that obvious importance to making sure it’s not just the United States or nations that have access to it. And we hear a lot about the variants that were first discovered in the UK, South Africa and then Brazil. Are there any other variants that you’re particularly concerned about and how much are we in the dark about all of this right now?
[Dr. Antony Fauci] Well, if it looks like it’s clear enough that there’s enough penetrance of a virus that isn’t fully protected by the vaccines, such as the South African Isolate. I think that the UK isolate, we’re in pretty good shape when it comes to that—but if we get a dominant prevalence of the South African, it is conceivable that we may need, and we’re already preparing for that—we want to stay a step ahead of the game—is to make a booster that expresses the spike protein of the new variant as opposed to the standard spike protein. So that may be six months or a year down the line, the pike you get people who were vaccinated, but you give them a boost, which is a boost expressing the variant that you’re worried about. I think that’s conceivable. We haven’t done it yet, but we’re preparing for the eventuality of having to do that.
[Akilah Hughes] I mean, personally, I would like for this to not ever happen again. [laughs] I don’t know about you. So what do we actually need to put in place so it doesn’t? Like is it just an ongoing pandemic task force? Like what steps do you actually want to see taken?
[Dr. Antony Fauci] Well, all of those things that you mentioned are important. I mean, obviously we want to be part of the global community. We want to have global surveillance. You know, there were, there were attempts, partially successful some time ago, to get a global network, which is under the category of the Global Health Security Network, where you get communications between countries so that when you see a new emerging pathogen arrive, immediately you identify it, you communicate with the rest of the world and you begin to develop as quickly as possible vaccines and therapeutics against it. You cannot prevent the emergence of a new infection. That usually, almost always, not always, but almost always, is, is part of what we call the animal-human interface, where we encroach upon the environment, as we did with H.I.V.-AIDS in chimpanzees, as we did with wet markets, having live animals. And that’s how things happened in China. Ebola, when you have people going into bat caves and things like that. So if we need, if we can essentially pay more attention to not encroaching inappropriately on that animal-human interface, at the same time as we develop universal approaches like a universal vaccine against a certain prototype, or a universal antiviral against a certain prototype, we can respond much better. Like I said, we’re not going to prevent the emergence, but we want to prevent the emergence from becoming a pandemic. And that’s where we can do something.
Gideon Resnick: That was Dr. Anthony Fauci, who we spoke to in February.
Akilah Hughes: Yeah, just a sidebar, he did meet my dog.
Gideon Resnick: He did.
Akilah Hughes: It’s been a long time since they’ve seen each other, but I think he’d be proud of the little boy that my dog is becoming.
Gideon Resnick: I think so too.
Akilah Hughes: Anyway, we’ve got one more conversation for the past we want to replay for you in just a moment. And it’s from someone who put a real smile on our face during this very tough time. That’s coming up after some ads.
Akilah Hughes: Hey, WAD squad. So we’ve been through a lot together in the past year and sometimes it’s been really tough to keep our heads up, but we wanted to wrap up the special edition of The Pod by replaying one of our favorite interviews that really lifted our spirits: Sana Khan.
Gideon Resnick: She’s a student of public health at the University of Arizona, and she was one of the essential workers registering people when they arrived to get their vaccines. When we connected in March, Sana talked about what the process was actually like and how fun it was to see people relieved and happy.
[Sana Khan] We’re on a drive-through vaccination on the mall. And so people pull up and we have kind of perfected our process. So it’s a minute 30 for the whole interaction: for them to give us their license, appointment confirmation, for us to look them up, for us to actually give them the vaccine and have them, like, go to observation—that whole process is down to a minute 30. Which is great that we’re so fast, but tough because we—like everyone, wants to be really, like, chatty and tell you, like their plans [laughs] which is great. [laughs] My favorite experience so far has been, I like took someone’s license to confirm their appointment and their date of birth, and I saw it was their birthday so I like yelled up to the car, I was like: hey, happy birthday! And all the other cars started like honking, they were like: hey happy birthday.
[Gideon Resnick] Oh, that’s so great.
[Akilah Hughes] [laughs] That’s so cute.
[Sana Khan] And so like everyone in this, had all the vaccinators, all the scribes, like everyone was just like yelling “Happy Birthday to this guy, who felt like he was in a parade. He like started waving. [laughter] And he was like: this is the best president I could have gotten! Which was great. And then he was like: when can I start drinking, can I start drinking in the observation area? And we were like: please do not do that.
[Akilah Hughes] Please drive home first. [laughs]
[Gideon Resnick] Yeah, also, isn’t he driving at this point? Is he asking to drink and drive?
[Sana Khan] He was driving. He was like: I can’t wait to have a drink. We were like: please don’t do that in observation. My other, yeah, like other fun stories is I love when people like come through with signs that are like: Thank you, health care workers. Which is great. I love asking people what they’re post-vaccination plans are. And when we were doing K – 12 teachers, they like unanimously were like: we cannot wait to be back in the classroom and I can’t wait to see you like this one specific student. So that was really, it’s just so meaningful, like it never gets old. Like my first person I did, and like the 1,000th person that I did like, it’s the same level of joy for each interaction.
[Akilah Hughes] I mean, do you encounter people who are hesitant, you know, once they’re there, or do you encounter it in your life more generally? Like have you had people say, like: I’m not getting it, I’m scared?
[Sana Khan] Yeah. The vaccine hesitancy is so interesting to me. And again, like this is like my area of research, too, so I’m really interested in it. But for the most part, people are so excited to get the vaccine. For people that are hesitant, it’s not for like most of the reasons you would think. Like no one who is hesitant is like: I hate all vaccines, I think there’s a microchip in it. Like that’s not really what’s driving hesitancy at the moment. What’s driving hesitancy, I think, is more like a lack of information about it and people just want to have a conversation with somebody they trust about it. And usually, like, once you have that one-on-one conversation with somebody like, they are usually going to decide to get a vaccine, I think.
[Gideon Resnick] And maybe this is an obvious question, but what made you want to volunteer for this specific role?
[Sana Khan] Yeah, this is totally my jam. Like, this is public health and action. This is why I got in public health. It’s incredible to be able to see like this, like large of a public health effort take place. The obvious answer is it is so refreshing to leave my house.
[Akilah Hughes] [laughs] Yeah, totally.
[Gideon Resnick] Right.
[Sana Khan] [?be near?] strangers and not be, you know, in front of the computer all day. I mean, I’m still in front of a computer, but the computer is outside, so.
[Gideon Resnick] Right.
[Akilah Hughes] [laughs] Exactly. [unclear]
[Sana Khan] Like seeing people like strangers has been wonderful. Ans interacting with people, it’s so wonderful. And it’s like the happiest place on earth, right not.
[Akilah Hughes] Yeah.
[Sana Khan] Yeah, definitely. And also just, like it’s so refreshing and so rewarding to be able to help in any small way. So I’ve been working on contact tracing and case investigations like for a whole year now. And those conversations are so difficult to have with people who have COVID. And when you’re like trying to contact trace, they’re so sick and, you know, they’ve lost a loved one to COVID, or their whole family is sick—like those conversations are so hard to have and they’re so draining on, like our whole team. Like we just always talk about, like: man, I have like ten really rough phone calls today. So to be able to like, after a full year of that every day, to be able to go out in, onto the mall and help people get vaccinated, is amazing.
Gideon Resnick: That was Sana Khan, a public health student at the University of Arizona, who we talked to in March.
Gideon Resnick: That is all today, if you like the show, make sure you subscribe, leave a review, take charge of your grill master journey, and tell your friends to listen.
Akilah Hughes: And if you’re into reading, and not just stuff that helps to process this year like me, What A Day is also a nightly newsletter. Check it out and subscribe at Crooked.com/subscribe. I’m Akilah Hughes
Gideon Resnick: I’m Gideon Resnick.
[together] And thanks for taking time to reflect!
Akilah Hughes: Yeah. Uh, we appreciate it.
Gideon Resnick: Yeah. We don’t do it enough.
Akilah Hughes: What A Day is a production of Crooked Media.
Gideon Resnick: It’s recorded in mixed Charlotte Landes.
Akilah Hughes: Sonia Htoon and Jazzi Marine are our associate producers.
Gideon Resnick: Our head writer is Jon Millstein, and our executive producers are Leo Duran, Akilah Hughes and me.
Akilah Hughes: Our theme music is by Colin Gilliard and Kashaka.