President’s Corner September 2020
COVID-19 Pandemic Fallout and Resilience
All of us have been affected in many ways by the COVID-19 pandemic, mostly in a negative way. Many of our pilot colleagues are facing furloughs, the collapse of their employer, salary reductions and for those who are flying, increasing burdens to comply with cleaning and sanitation requirements, public health orders and reduced support when away from home.
On the scientific front, many unknowns still exist about the SARS-CoV-2 virus and possible treatment or prevention for COVID-19. This is complicated by the premature and unvalidated release of information by some in the scientific community, the press and magnified by social media posts by uninformed and unqualified people. Some of the unknowns are related to the availability, cost, capacity, accuracy and usefulness of various testing modalities. Vaccine availability timelines, safety, efficacy and distribution challenges are numerous. Will multiple doses be required and how long will relative protection last? What age groups will benefit? Contract tracing of known cases, testing protocols and changing isolation and quarantine policies, particularly with international travel, add to the confusion.
At home, many face challenges with reduced contact with friends and loved ones, particularly for the elderly and isolated. Those at home with young children who don’t understand the new normal and students who are competing for bandwidth and private space with parents teleworking are all stressed. Uncertainties about returning to schools and colleges, job security fears and concerns about health care complicate the psychological burden.
These are just a few of the many challenges pilots and their families face daily. However, I am naturally an optimist and have seen numerous examples of resilience, creativity and courage from all components of our industry. When the pandemic is resolved, many positive changes will be part of our new normal.
For pilots, the mental health stressors for not only those in the business aviation and passenger airline groups who are flying less, but also for those cargo pilots who are meeting very high demand schedules have increased dramatically. A recent scientific study validated the significant increase in mental health needs. Across the world, pilot peer support programs (PPSP) have been established with an expansion of funding and training of volunteers. PPSP’s are extremely effective in the majority stressors that pilots face and remove barriers to pilots reaching out for help. For those that need additional help, referral to both professional medical care and employee experts for contractual benefits are readily available. Self-care and mental wellbeing are the cornerstones of a health and safety program.
The Public Health Corridor concept put forward by ICAO is designed to ensure a Clean Aircraft, Clean Airport and Clean Aircrew/Passenger for the health and safety in future travel. Touchless security and boarding clearance of crew and passengers will expedite our travels. Aircraft manufacturers and scientists are working together to mitigate the risk of disease contagion within an aircraft, not only for COVID, but also for other current and future pathogens.
The FAA, as well as many other civil aviation authorities, has demonstrated flexibility in the face of COVID limitations. Some of the changes may become permanent as their effectiveness is demonstrated. There has been flexibility in training and currency requirements. The Air Traffic Control system has found ways to continue to operate effectively even when faced with facility or sector closures due to COVID. Working jointly with the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA), the FAA developed a sound risk-based strategy for manning facilities and protecting controllers while ensuring facilities were quickly cleaned and sanitized for return to service when exposed to the virus.
For pilots and controllers who could not see an Aviation Medical Examiner at the scheduled time, an extension to the duration of medical certificates was granted. For pilots in monitoring through the HIMS program for their substance dependence, the FAA allows virtual visits with those monitoring their recovery. The FAA has designed guidance for pilots in the HIMS program who may be furloughed and lose financial and employer support. Online training programs for AME’s have started. Pilots fearing acquiring COVID from cockpit oxygen masks were relieved when the FAA raised the requirement to wear a mask with a single pilot in the cockpit from FL 250 to FL 410, which is consistent with most international regulations.
Though many of us who support pilots have developed “Zoom fatigue” (or whatever video teleconferencing program being used), we have increased communications with our professional colleagues around the world and our friends and families across the country. We are still on the learning curve, but effective distance learning and communications will save us time and money while improving collaboration. The quality of programs will steadily improve and be available to a broad audience at their convenience.
As a Preventive Medicine specialist, I am pleased with the new public awareness of the importance of public health and mental wellbeing. Hopefully, it will become a regular part of public discourse and personal behavior. Perhaps our health care model will move from a reactive stance of treatment to a proactive stance of prevention. People will practice self-care and recognize the value of mutual support.
Just as I closed my last President’s Corner, please practice good public health measures, focus on self-care and get a flu vaccine! It is safe, effective and saves lives. Hopefully soon we can say the same about a COVID vaccine. In any case, our resiliency in the face of this prolonged crisis is remarkable and reassuring.