Dr. Jennifer Ashton experienced the coronavirus pandemic as a New York resident, a practicing gynecologist and a member of the news media.
Ashton, the chief medical correspondent for ABC News and “Good Morning America,” shared some of her takeaways from the pandemic during a Tuesday evening lecture, hosted on Zoom by the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at Berkshire Community College, in the 12th Mona Sherman Memorial Lecture, held in memory of the late OLLI board president Mona Sherman.
Ashton also discussed aspects of her fourth book, “The New Normal: A Roadmap to Resilience in the Pandemic Era,” in conversation with Lisa Sharkey, a publisher, former journalist and Sherman’s daughter.
More than 350 people attended the lecture, which was free and open to the public.
Despite her medical and reporting responsibilities, Ashton said that navigating the pandemic was a deeply personal experience. She personally knew five people who died of COVID-19, her brother fell seriously ill and she had “literally well over 100 patients who had COVID themselves,” she said.
Like many others, she struggled with the decision of whether to get vaccinated against the disease. Ashton has a history of severe allergic reactions to some foods.
“Up until literally the end of 2020, I myself was saying, ‘I don’t think I’m going to take the vaccine right away. I think I’m going to wait,’” she said.
About late November or early December, though, Ashton had a “kind of lightbulb moment.”
“I said, ‘You know what? I’m probably going to get COVID. Everybody around me has had it,’” Ashton said.
“I wasn’t worried about dying of COVID. What I was really worried about was getting COVID and being in the 10 to 20 percent of people who go on to have cognitive, psychiatric issues, cardiovascular issues. No way. I was not willing to roll the dice with that.”
After speaking with her allergist, Ashton received two doses of the Pfizer vaccine and did not experience an allergic reaction.
Professionally, speaking on the COVID-19 diagnosis of President Donald Trump was “by far the most challenging professional medical task I had ever had to do,” said Ashton, who described herself as a “true centrist.” Ashton said she sticks to medicine, her field of expertise.
“I have to speak about the most powerful person in the world who has been giving incorrect opinion, basically, since day one of this pandemic but is now a patient, and my responsibility is always to a patient,” she remembered, adding that she spent 15 minutes of a phone therapy session talking about Trump’s diagnosis. “I don’t care if the patient is a crack addict or the president or a criminal — it doesn’t matter.”
Responsibility to the patient, Ashton said, also is why she respects patient autonomy if patients choose not to be vaccinated, although she provides her medical opinion. When some patients cite pharmaceutical companies’ involvement for their lack of trust in vaccines, for example, Ashton gives her account of why the vaccines are safe and effective.
“What you should really realize is pharmaceutical companies are in business to make a profit, so, the worst thing for them would be to produce a product that is dangerous and doesn’t work,” Ashton said.
Ashton, in her most recent book, also offers recommendations for individuals to “pandemic-proof” their bodies and minds.
“In terms of our physical status but also our mental status, what that means is that we should be living our lives kind of like we’re ready to go to battle at any time ... or ready to experience physical or mental stressors,” Ashton said.
Another recommendation is to “think like a doctor,” which Ashton said does not require completing four years of medical school but instead includes learning to “think from all angles,” consider all possible explanations and adapt to real-time changes.
One situation that people should be monitoring, Ashton said, is the recent COVID-19 outbreak in India. There is concern for variants developing within the country, and lack of health care access and inequality have exacerbated the crisis. While Indian officials have reported 27 million cases and over 300,000 deaths as of Tuesday, many believe those statistics represent an undercount.
Ashton said people should be worried because residents of India are experiencing a humanitarian crisis and that India is a major manufacturer of pharmaceutical products and a global economic player, as well as that “it’s here and it will come here several times a day on planes.”
“One of, I think, the lessons of the last year-plus of this global pandemic is that we can no longer take a U.S.-centric view on public health, which, unfortunately, we used to do before this,” Ashton said.
“We used to say — and ‘we’ meaning general sort of consensus — ‘If it’s not happening here, I don’t need to worry about it.’ Well, we do need to worry about it because the virus does not stop at the state or county line or country border.”