In the two months since George Khalil's first deployment, the situation had drastically changed.
The University of Georgia alumnus and part-time professor normally has a desk job at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, but when the organization started buzzing with news of a new coronavirus that was bound to hit the states, Khalil knew he wanted to be on the ground. He volunteered to deploy to the San Francisco airport, where the CDC had employees quizzing passengers flying in from Wuhan (and later all of China) about possible symptoms of the disease. Passengers with obvious symptoms, such as a dry cough, had their temperatures taken and were examined by a health care provider.
The goal was clear. "We didn't want it coming into the country at all, not even one case," said Khalil, a professor in the College of Public Health's Doctor of Public Health degree program. But by his second deployment, it was clear that not only was the disease already in communities around the country. It was spreading.
This time, he went to the Boston airport, outfitted with an N-95 mask, a face shield and a medical gown. Khalil spent eight years as an EMT before joining the CDC, so chatting up ill passengers wasn’t entirely foreign to him. What was new was the fear of catching what the passengers had.
“They’re honest with us—we’re in high-risk jobs,” Khalil said. “We’re seeing sick people. But honestly our risk is probably the same as going to the store now.”
All the CDC volunteers were extra sensitive to developing symptoms of their own, and the atmosphere of the airport was noticeably different than January in San Francisco.
The first time, nobody departing a plane was wearing a mask. The second, almost everyone was masked. Flights were few and far between. Fewer people were taking the risk of flying. It was almost boring at times. The CDC called the volunteers back after a week, cutting short what was scheduled to be a monthlong deployment.
Khalil spent the next two weeks at a hotel, waiting to see if he’d develop symptoms of the disease he screened others for. He didn’t and was able to head home toward the middle of April.
Even after getting back, he feels like he hasn’t fully processed the experience. He’s fielding 10 to 15 calls a day from people asking for advice, which he’s happy to give.
“It’s an interesting time in our history, and it’s an interesting time to work for the CDC,” Khalil said. “I’m sure that I will take away a lot with my experiences and everything else.”
He’s jumped back into his role as a mathematical statistician at the CDC, though his office looks different these days since whoever is able is now working from home.
But COVID-19 is never far from his mind.
The refugee-focused nonprofit he founded, Route 78 Coffee Company, is donating all proceeds from its coffee sales to Ethnē Clinic in Clarkston, Georgia. The nonprofit clinic serves a large refugee population, with the goal of treating patients’ physical, mental health and spiritual needs. When the coronavirus hit the small town, the clinic partnered with the city to provide free drive-through testing for community members. But like other health care facilities across the nation, personal protective equipment was in short supply. In addition to helping raise funds to purchase PPE, Khalil also reached out to the UGA College of Engineering to secure some of the medical face shields the college is producing to aid in the fight against COVID-19.
He’s spending his days catching up on the HIV research data he normally analyzes for various CDC branches. But with the requests for help and manpower coming in from departments of public health across the country, Khalil said he’s likely to volunteer again.
“I want to help,” Khalil said. “I don’t want to sit at my desk and watch the world collapse.
“We thought it was going to be a big war to close down the economy. We thought it was going to be something physical. We never thought it would be something so small.”