A screen shot of a March 29, 2020 Armenian Medical International Committee meeting on Zoom

US and International Armenian Medical Associations Deal with Coronavirus Crisis

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NEW YORK/LOS ANGELES – Armenian medical associations in the United States and abroad have sprung into action in order to deal with the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic. Two of the most active in the United States have been the Armenian American Medical Society (AAMS) based in Los Angeles and the Armenian American Health Professionals Organization (AAHPO) in New York and New Jersey and parts of Connecticut. Both organizations began to work to help Armenians in their local communities and in Armenia fairly early during the process of spread of the virus. The Armenian Medical International Committee (AMIC), a coordinating body of Armenian medical associations worldwide, to which both these American-Armenian groups belong, has been active in the same period internationally.

Armenian American Health Professionals Organization

Ophthalmologist Dr. Lawrence V. Najarian is president of AAHPO as well as a member of AMIC’s executive committee. AAHPO represents around 500 health care providers, including physicians, pharmacists, dentists, social workers and others.

Najarian said, “This is an unprecedented crisis. It is a crisis we have to deal with on a governmental level but what we each do as individuals is so critical.” Consequently, he said that one of the most important steps that AAHPO has been taking is educational. It has been attempting to distill all the information available in a way that the average person on the street, not a physician, can understand. It is reaching out to both individuals and other Armenian nonprofit organizations with email content that it is freely distributing. Now other organizations, including the churches, are distributing this information too.

AAHPO sends out biweekly emails to its own list. It also has developed YouTube content and has given interviews with the Voice of Armenians television program, available also online and the Armenian Radio Hour of New Jersey, which also has a video or television component.

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AAHPO provides reliable information on the coronavirus pandemic, while debunking myths and misinformation. It is stressing proper behavior such as physical or social distancing, staying in place, frequent handwashing and disinfecting of surfaces, as well as not going directly to emergency rooms if sick. Najarian said, “All the churches and all the NGOs have

Dr. Lawrence Najarian

responded in such a professional and sophisticated way, cancelling their meetings and events and using new technology. Churches, for example, have been livestreaming services and funerals. These actions that almost all of these Armenian organizations took very early on have saved lives. There is no doubt about it. Every organization needs to be complimented. They are dealing with facts and they knew how bad it was going to be.”

AAHPO advises the Armenian community and its members to watch out for the older people, and for the youth to be careful too. The latter are just as likely as others to get it, and while they may be more likely to recover, they can spread the disease to others more vulnerable.

AAHPO has helped funnel information directly to and through these organizations in several ways. Its officials and experts have held sessions with leaders of various groups privately and are actively consulting with them, Najarian said. It provides the information but each group is free to make its own decisions about how to act.

A major form of cooperation and planning is through weekly virtual meetings which are being called “town hall meetings.” Every Thursday night for the last three weeks, the leaders of many major Armenian American organizations primarily on the East Coast, ranging from churches to philanthropic groups, have participated in conferences via the suddenly extremely popular Zoom software.

The diplomatic representatives of the Republic of Armenia and Artsakh in the US, including ambassadors, also participate and provide direct information about conditions in the homeland. After this, specialists in public health and medicine like AAHPO board members Dr. Kim Hekimian of Columbia University and Dr. Tsoline Kojaoghlanian of Maimonides Hospital in Brooklyn speak about strategies being used and their critiques. Physicians like Dr. Sharon Chekijian, a specialist in emergency medicine at Yale New Haven Hospital, provide the current view from the trenches. AMIC also has a representative at the meeting.

The first time 16 people participated. The second week it was 35, and the last one on March 26 had more than 60 people. Even more organizations are expected to participate next week. Najarian said that it has grown into a big exchange of information which lasts around two hours. Basically, Najarian said, “We are giving facts for the leaders to make decisions. One of the comments we get is we come to the meeting and hear about it in the news 3 days later.”

Next week the meeting will focus more on the next stage of the spread of the disease. Going forward, a lot of psychosocial issues are to be expected.

Najarian said that while they were trying to prepare people for a situation that will definitely get a lot worse, it will eventually get better. In other words, he said, “we are trying to convey that this is a marathon, not a sprint. We are in the long haul and we all have to work together.”

Some glimmers of light already exist. AAHPO is, for example, trying to partner with Mount Sinai Medical Center to get Armenians to come forward as donors for blood eventually to get antibodies from those who already have overcome coronavirus and transfer them to others people who are sick to give them immunity.

AAHPO has a hotline number (908-914-5549) which people can call for information and help, as well as an email address, info@aahpo.org, for this purpose. Its Facebook page is frequently updated. AAHPO attempts to be proactive, Najarian said. He noted that at least two situations arose where AAHPO could help individuals.

Armenian American Medical Society

The needs of the Armenian-American communities in Los Angeles have been different than those in the New York metropolitan area during this crisis. The spread of the coronavirus started a few weeks earlier in the latter area, which now is considered a “hot spot” in the United States.

The Armenian American Medical Society (aamsc.org) focuses locally on the Los Angeles community and is dealing with the virus situation there. Dr. Vicken Sepilian, an infertility specialist and reproductive endrocrinologist, is its past president and current board member, as well as president of AMIC. AAMS has approximately 600 active members and a total of some 2,000 if one includes all its contacts and more passive ones, Sepilian said. Two-thirds are physicians and the other two biggest group of members are dentists and pharmacists. AAMS also works closely with the local Armenian American Nurses Association.

Dr. Vicken Sepilian

Sepilian said that initially AAMS was more worried about Armenia than the Southern California Armenian community concerning COVID-19. He said, “For some reason, we thought we would be fine. Nevertheless, we geared up to educate the community in preparedness.”

Unlike the New York area, where Sepilian said he believed the community was more engaged in its various affinity organizations, there were huge masses which really were not connected to any Armenian body. Consequently, though AAMS kept the leadership of the organizations informed of what it was doing, and these organizations have been circulating the information AAMS prepares, Sepilian said it primarily went directly to the masses.

Again unlike the East Coast Armenian communities, it still has a large number of people who consume information primarily in Armenian, so AAMS notified Los Angeles public health departments, hospitals, and clinics of the urgency of producing such material, Sepilian said. AAMS has in general been in the forefront of requesting Armenian-language material from these entities and helped push for an Armenian-speaking spokesperson at Los Angeles County’s Department of Public Health. Fortunately, at this point most public and elected officials and offices managing this issue have Armenian-speaking representatives in the Los Angeles area, including the offices of the Los Angeles mayor and sheriff, and especially in Glendale.

AAMS sent expert members to give interviews on all the Armenian television channels. It created a contact list of facilities and resources in the Los Angeles-Glendale-Hollywood area for those who are not feeling well and circulated this list to Armenian community leaders.

AAMS works in both Eastern and Western Armenian. It does also provide materials in English.

AAMS has been in touch directly with Armenian community organizations and churches. Sepilian explained: “Our role was being the conduit through which the county [of Los Angeles] can directly reach the representatives of the various churches and instruct them on the recommendations coming in from the state and the CDC [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention].” AMIC also has participated in meetings of groups like the Pan Armenian Council of the Western United States.

AAMS is connecting citizens of the Republic of Armenia who are stranded at present in Los Angeles and cannot return home with free clinics owned or run by AAMS members. It also helps visitors.

AAMS is placing content pertaining to the coronavirus crisis prepared by physicians on YouTube and on its website and Facebook page. Sepilian said that anybody in need locally or anywhere in the world can contact AAMS for direction concerning health care via email at info@aamsc.org and telephone (818) 980-7777.

Sepilian commented that there is no indication that the Armenian community in Los Angeles is being impacted in any way differently than other groups. He did note that there are several factors at play. Armenians tend to be more of a communal society, he said, often with multiple generations living under the same roof. This is one reason why AAMS has been particularly promoting sensitivity to the need to protect the elderly and family members with preexisting medical conditions from the coronavirus due to their additional risk factors.

Secondly, he said that there is a high prevalence of smoking in the community. There is some evidence that this may have a negative impact in this crisis and AAMS continues to ask Armenians to quit smoking. Many Armenians also congregate in hookah lounges and bars. AAMS has from day one one of the spread told Armenians not to go there.

Help for Armenia

AAMS is in touch directly with the Consulate General of Armenia in Los Angeles concerning aid, while AAHPO maintains direct communications with Armenia’s Ministry of Health and the office of the High Commissioner of the Diaspora. However, both organizations are also member societies of AMIC, which is important in maintaining relations with Armenia.

The idea of AMIC, an international coordinating committee, came up in 1973 in Beirut at the first Armenian Medical World Congress but was not created until 1990, with its main office established in Montreal, Canada. Subsequently, it was incorporated in Mountain View, Calif., in 2015. It has among other things supported the Armenian world congresses bringing together around 500 Armenian health providers from around the world.

Sepilian, its president, declared that AMIC has been having its own telephone conference meetings discussing the coronavirus crisis, with representatives of groups from places like Amsterdam, London, Paris, Lyon, Montreal, Philadelphia, Boston, New Jersey and California participating.

Sepilian noted that AAHPO is perhaps the most active organization in educating various Armenian organizational leaders. It has created a primer which AMIC is examining to see if it can be applicable to other diasporan communities, most of which are on lockdowns but still active, at least in the virtual realm. Sepilian in particular commended the efforts of Dr. Najarian as a charismatic leader who truly cares and has done an outstanding job.

Sepilian said that even a week or two before Armenia reported its first coronavirus case on February 29, AMIC was speaking about the need for preparation for prevention there. The first meetings with Armenia’s Ministry of Health and the office of the High Commissioner of the Diaspora began that actual weekend of the announcement of the case.

AMIC sent out a call for medical supplies requested from Armenia through various diasporan groups. Sepilian said to avoid duplication of efforts it was done through a group with representatives from the two aforementioned Armenian state bodies. The procurement and shipping of the equipment was undertaken by the Armenia Fund, itself having a number of Armenian-American organizations on its board. Together with the Chevy Chase Surgery Center (Maryland), the Armenian Relief Society, and several other groups, it was able to quickly send a one-ton shipment of urgent supplies such as masks, protective suits and thermometers from Los Angeles International Airport.

Supplies being packed to be sent to Armenia by the Armenia Fund

Since then, Sepilian said, some additional supplies or raw materials have been secured but AMIC is focusing more on providing transfer of know-how to Armenia. For example, retrofitting various types of medical equipment like anesthesia machines to work as ventilators would be very useful for Armenia.

In general, Sepilian said, “We are trying to stay on top of the science. We are all learning from each other internationally.” A lot is rapidly changing in the US and Europe. AMIC is transferring information deemed credible as soon as it comes to it from its various sources to Armenia, which then can decide whether it is applicable for use there. AMIC has regular chat groups with its far-flung members which are helpful in this regard.

Sepilian said that AMIC explored seeing what Armenia’s capabilities might be to make some of the medications that are touted as medically effective. Armenia has already, for example, converted brandy factories to making hand sanitizer. The use of blood plasma with antibodies mentioned above is one of the things being explored for the Armenian bone marrow facility.

Telementoring and teleadvising is being organized to connect experts to Armenia. Regular lectures and question and answer sessions on specific cases and circumstances will be presented from all over the world, organized by the National Institute of Health in Armenia. The Armenian American Nurses Association in Los Angeles is ready to help teletrain nurses in Armenia to deal with the coronavirus. Sepilian remarked that many of these nurses were born and raised in Armenia and so are bilingual.

AMIC is also creating a pan-Armenian diaspora resource list for Armenians traveling or in medical need anywhere.

Positive Elements for Coronavirus Response Compared to 1988

Najarian said, “What is so different in this response as compared to the Armenian earthquake of 1988 is that all the medical organizations like AAHPO throughout the world are marching in lockstep, doing what is best for Armenia, and leveraging and maximizing our skills in a coordinated way.” The Armenian government is coordinating diaspora relief so that ten different organizations do not deliver the same items Armenia needs.

AMIC did not exist during the Armenian earthquake. Najarian noted that not only is it good that such a coordinating organization already exists, but that the crisis is compelling it to mature as an organization. Sepilian said that it has been effectively preventing various diasporan organizations rushing to do the same thing. The silver lining in the current crisis, Najarian finds is that it has brought Armenia and its diaspora closer together than ever before.

Another difference is the wide use of telehealth, which AAHPO began pioneering in 2008-9 among Armenians. For the first time at the Armenian Medical World Congress in New York in 2009, it was used to consult with doctors in Armenia on cases in real time. Lectures were also broadcast to Armenia for the first time. It has been used now over the past 12 years by AAHPO and other groups. Now it is a good way to unite Armenian medical experts throughout the world to help Armenia.

Armenia is better prepared than in the past also on an administrative level. Najarian pointed out that the current minister of health is not only a physician but has a public health degree, while four of his associate ministers have public health degrees, and some have trained at the American University of Armenia. Najarian said, “Armenia has never been in better hands.” Armenia has taken well acknowledged public health measures to protect Armenia as much as it can, he said.

Armenia is in a better situation in some ways internationally. Najarian remarked that Armenia today has direct relations with many countries throughout the world as well as with its many diaspora communities, which can allow it multiple resources and assistance. It is not just the US or traditional diasporas which can be utilized. Even Armenians in China are helping.

Keeping this optimistic tone, Najarian concluded that despite the stressful situation in many parts of the US (and the world), Armenian Americans should realize how much better off they are now themselves living through this crisis, compared to Armenians in 1988. They are sheltering in place, with electricity working, Internet, and all kinds of social media. Hopefully a vaccine and various effective remedies will be developed for COVID-19 soon.

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