Wellness Experts Share Candid Discussion on the Effects of the Pandemic

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COVID-19 continues to cause unexpected changes across every industry, from hospitality to education to research. We asked five wellness and health care experts to join us for a roundtable on how they’ve adapted to the new reality and the changes they are implementing and witnessing.

By Morgan Weston |Photography by Beth Mann

Responses have been condensed and edited for clarity. 

First things first. How are you? How has the way you work changed over the past few months?

Dr. Taineisha Bolden I’m OK, but for the first 60 to 75 days, it was exceptionally stressful just being a parent [and] adjusting to a new way of life. But recently we’ve found new routines, I’ve stayed active, and I’ve switched [to] teaching Zumba over Zoom. Being a restaurant owner as well [she and husband Dorian Bolden own Beyu Caffe] definitely factors into the stress.

Dr. Ashly Gaskin-Wasson I’ve been seeing patients virtually, and thankfully my husband, Brian Wasson, and I have been able to take turns caring for our 21-month-old son, London. I’ve been intentionally making space for me so I can show up well for my clients and my family.

Marissa Mortiboy The Partnership for a Healthy Durham took a break from meetings in March and April to reorganize and rethink the structure of our meetings. We began meeting again in May via Zoom. 

Jasmine Burroughs My practice was actually my side hustle until recently, and COVID-19 hit right when I went out on my own [with Food That Fits You]. My son, Zaire, is 2, so I’ve recently gotten into a groove where I focus some days of the week on my clients, and others with my son. It helps me stay relatable to my clients and keep balance.

AGW A challenge for me is not having administrative help – I spent five hours or more in the first week just trying to ensure that my clients’ insurances covered telehealth. A few folks even paused their mental health treatment, not knowing if it would be covered.

TB The way my practice is set up, my patients pay a flat fee, so nothing is predicated on insurance reimbursement – but in many cases there weren’t mechanisms in place for telehealth, so that was a challenge for many providers.

Dr. C. Nicole Swiner Our practice did not close down, but we originally shortened our hours so we could process and figure out how we could be humans with all this. We implemented telemedicine across the practice to pivot and continue patient care. When I get home, I shower immediately – none of my family members are allowed to touch me until I have.

JB I would not say things have been completely disrupted, but I have definitely adapted to virtual consultations.

AGW I initially paused psychological assessments, but I’m in the process of being able to offer some virtually.

MM Instead of focusing on committee action plans during meetings, we have check-ins with participants, discuss what has changed in the community and ways we can support community needs. We are also continuing our racial equity work and what that will look like when applied to the entire Partnership.

What problems has the coronavirus brought to the forefront in terms of our health care system?

TB For me, it can be hard to answer patient questions right now, because information we are receiving as medical professionals has been inconsistent. That, and the double masking [the wearing of two masks at once because medical-grade masks aren’t always available] has been challenging.  

MM Factors affecting COVID-19 outcomes include whether someone has a medical home/primary care provider, who has access to testing sites (due to insurance status, location, transportation and internet access), which jobs offer protections such as working from home, paid sick leave, and if they have to work on-site.

AGW A word I keep seeing is “magnified.” We know COVID-19 is disproportionately affecting people of color – and that is in part because of historic disparities. For example, these communities already experience implicit bias in health care. Add to that things like paywalls in news media creating a lack of access to information, or reduced testing sites in less affluent areas; I can’t help but wonder what was lost in those first days and weeks. 

JB I serve a diverse group, but many of my clients are women of color. This pandemic has exacerbated existing stressors, especially for those who don’t have the luxury of working from home. Cooking is a big deal – I used to have more conversations around making healthy choices at restaurants. Now, those conversations start with, “How can I take care of myself at home?” This has been especially hard on those who live alone or those who use transit, or otherwise don’t have access or funds for healthy foods. 

NS There are definitely a lot of challenges. I am glad, though, that some of these things are being brought to light. That is the first step toward change.

wellness experts
Clockwise from top left: Dr. Taineisha Bolden, Dr. C. Nicole Swiner, Dr. Ashly Gaskin-Wasson and Jasmine Burroughs.

How has COVID-19 impacted mental/full body health? What advice are you giving to your clients/patients to help?

MM Getting used to a new normal is difficult. There are people who don’t have all the resources they need, and that can cause stress and have a large impact on mental health.

TB Even for my clients who did not have mental health issues prior to the pandemic, they have been experiencing symptoms of depression and anxiety for the first time.

NS We’re all still figuring it out. I recommend finding activities that are relaxing – gardening has been a great option for many, and cooking at home. For me, I’m talking with all of my friends in the mental health field frequently, staying active and keeping my kids busy. They’re currently enrolled in online dance and gym camps – but even that is a privilege, as it requires having a laptop and Wi-Fi. I do share with my clients how it is affecting me to help them understand it is human to feel worried right now. 

TB It’s a unique position to be in, for sure. You are trusted to help people through difficult situations. It can be really heavy, and I have no poker face. My patients will ask me if I’m OK, and I just tell them it’s not about me in that moment – I need them to know it’s OK to feel however they feel. 

AGW Exactly! Something I often say to trauma victims is, “You are having a normal reaction to an abnormal situation.” I reassure them that it is completely OK to feel how they are feeling. Experiencing a pandemic is definitely an abnormal situation.

NS That’s also true about weight gain – many folks are worried about that right now. The “quarantine 15.”

JB I’ve seen that, too. Before [COVID-19], most clients came to me for weight management. Now, I’m also asked, “How can I stay healthy right now?” or “How can I boost my immune system?” Yes, you can incorporate sea moss or superfoods into your diet, but it isn’t a cure-all. My recommendations are always the same, simple, practical methods: Get enough rest. Find time for yourself. Stay as active as you can and eat a variety of foods. 

NS What is it about sea moss that’s so popular right now?

JB It’s great for the digestive system and has lots of minerals. But like I said, it is always a good idea to incorporate healthy ingredients into your diet, but if you’re still smoking, eating poorly or not sleeping, it’s not going to do much. 

Racial and economic disparities surrounding who actually becomes infected with the disease have been thrown into sharp relief in recent months. What do you believe can be done in your field and beyond to help improve outcomes for minorities and low-income families? 

MM Coronavirus has brought issues that existed in health care – such as access, affordability, quality of care, discrimination and racial inequities – to the forefront. It has become more apparent that marginalized populations such as African Americans, Hispanics and Latinos, and low-income [populations] have worse health outcomes overall, and during COVID-19. [Personal protective equipment], social distancing, frequent disinfecting and hand-washing or hand sanitizer for those who have to work on-site are all helpful.

People of color are more likely to work in jobs deemed essential and may not have these protective factors at their work sites. This can lead to increased exposure to COVID-19. Health insurance rates are lower in Durham for African Americans, Hispanics and Latinos and Native Americans, which impacts access. Research shows that people of color receive lower-quality care or aren’t listened to as often as white patients, which impacts the type of care received.

TB When I think back to when everything first closed, the people who depend on school for things like meals, supervision for their children … it has just been a tremendous hardship for so many of our neighbors. How do we figure out school? Bussing? Nutrition? There are some stopgaps, such as The Feed DURM Collective, [an emergency alliance created by Beyu Group Inc. that coordinates safe food deliveries to feed children, individuals, families and health care workers], but the fragility that has existed for decades has been exposed, and these are big questions to be answered. And on a local scale, the fabric of Durham is built on festivals, restaurants, music venues and the people who work here – we need planning and progress to ensure they stay successful. 

NS On the other side of this, I hope all the wonderful people we have in our city will hopefully be treated better, staff and patrons alike. I love Durham, but my friends are not always given equal treatment. We need more safe, Black-owned spaces in Durham. And the awareness and acknowledgement that is happening now really has to be mobilized. One of the good things that has come out of the pandemic and the drama in politics right now, is that it’s in your face. You can’t avoid it – it’s on social media, it’s on the news, it’s online. It really is not the responsibility of the Black community to fix things – or the health care providers – it has to be everyone, coming together as a community. When it comes to Black Lives Matter and some of the disparities being brought to the surface, it is up to our white allies to realize how they can help and what mindset shifts they have to make, what conversations they have to have in rooms and at tables where decisions are being made, [and] they have to advocate for those changes. Folks in the health care world have been fighting this battle to make things equal long before I’ve been in medicine, and Black folks have been fighting for centuries to make things equal.

AGW Right. It’s not just the health care industry. All institutions are being affected. It isn’t because of a gap in achievement; it’s a gap in resources. Those same policies and practices I mentioned have also led to many people of color being essential workers on the front lines, and not just in health care, but also driving buses, working at stores that are still open, etc. I’ve had a lot of conversations with my patients who are people of color and seeing this time as an opportunity to try to engage with dismantling racism, but people are experiencing a lot of burnout, too. We have conversations around the scale of balancing activism and advocacy with self-care, and knowing the scale is going to be tipped depending on your needs and values, and that’s OK, too. People often feel guilty about self-care, but if you see it as a process – one that other people are also experiencing – you can give yourself time to recover.

JB I’m from Tarboro, but I have been here long enough to see a lot of change. I’m curious to see what it will look like a couple of years from now, and like Nicole said, what spaces will exist for Black people. At the moment, I have seen people intentionally seeking Black businesses to support, which is so exciting. I hear about this struggle from my clients and think about my 2-year-old son – for now, I’m focused on building his routines and fostering his independence, both as a human and around food. 

MM We need to look at the bigger picture to support low-income families and people of color. There are immediate needs, such as income support, housing and food. But to improve outcomes long term, we need to change policies that would ensure equity for people of color, such as raising the minimum wage to a living wage, expanding access to Medicaid, expanding the social safety net, increasing access to safe and affordable housing, ensuring quality education and providing wealth-building opportunities. We can’t return to “normal.” We need to adapt to meet the needs of community members and make changes for the long-term to improve health outcomes for those most impacted. This may involve changing policies and practices, how we engage the community, make decisions and allocate resources.

TB I think we need to have both a short- and long- range view. Maybe in 2022, there will be a vaccine, but until then, we can’t just proceed with blinders on. We have to keep this same energy, and find your lane – whether that’s marching, educating, using your local influence – each piece is important. 

JB Fewer than 3% of dietitians are Black. We all know there are large disparities in health – especially with diet-related chronic conditions – and Black people are disproportionately affected by those, so it’s shocking to hear that fewer than 3% of the field represent that population. I hope this conversation can encourage girls who look like me to explore these kinds of roles in health and medicine.

AGW I think only 4 or 5% of psychologists are Black – we can’t carry everyone, so in terms of long-term solutions, why are there only so many of us in the field? Doctoral programs, social work programs and counseling programs need not only recruitment, but retention, and for those institutions to implement policies to ensure that the educational environment isn’t hostile. In addition, federal and private student loans need to be forgiven – these are barriers to success in education that shouldn’t exist.

TB I’m still just thinking about George Floyd. Unfortunately, for many of us, we have a plethora of firsthand stories like that that we can tell – and I’m not that old, and so that doesn’t include anything that happened before I was born. So many of us have been conditioned to have this expectation that we will be treated differently, and it is not OK – it isn’t normal. We all need to keep feeling this every time a story appears in the media until there are no more stories.  

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Morgan Weston

Durham Magazine freelancer Morgan Weston is a North Carolina native who loves exploring the Triangle's diverse food, arts and craft beer offerings.

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