Social Distancing and Togetherness: A Contradiction in Terms?

May 18, 2020

By Maura Gavaghan, Corporate Communications, Translate Bio
and Colleen Veitengruber, Mother, CF Patient Advocate, Teacher

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the maximum number of daily Zoom meeting participants soared to more than 300 million daily meeting participants. For perspective, the total U.S. population is about 331 million people!

“We may call it social distancing, but it’s really about physical distancing.”
Nancy Messonnier, CDC

This spotlight takes a departure on our usual science-focus to take a closer look at the challenges, and norms, of social distancing for people with cystic fibrosis.

On March 25, the National Academy of Medicine and the American Public Health Association held a webinar on the science of social distancing to slow the spread of coronavirus. Nearly 11,000 people joined the webinar. Nancy Messonnier, Director of the Center for the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and a panelist at the webinar said, “We may call it social distancing, but it’s really about physical distancing.”

This was starting to sound familiar to our team at Translate Bio – But why? Well, we have had a chance to learn from—and ask questions of— our friends and partners in the cystic fibrosis (CF) community over the last few years. While physical distancing may be a new and difficult concept for many of us, it’s not at all new for people living with CF. Germs—and the risk of infection that comes along with them— have always been a major concern for people with CF; for decades, they have been following best practices to lower their risk of infection.

“As someone with CF, I’ve always been aware of how I might be at risk for infection or that I could be putting someone else with CF at risk. I’ve never wanted to live in a bubble but I also know I need to take the necessary precautions to stay healthy, especially right now.” — Colleen Veitengruber, CF Patient Advocate

 In this spotlight, we aim to share some learnings and perspective from the CF community related to physical distancing and, since the majority of us are working from home, we’ll also share some thoughts on how we are creatively engaging with each other and achieving togetherness while apart.

We recently chatted via Zoom with CF patient advocate, Colleen Veitengruber, to understand firsthand how she is navigating this unprecedented time and the impact this is having on her family.


 Long before the COVID-19 outbreak, the CF community followed guide-lines that, while not called “social distancing,” are quite similar such as:

– two people with CF should stay a minimum of 6 feet apart from each other
– avoid close contact with someone who is sick
– minimize the time that two people with CF spend in one place
– people with CF be in common gathering areas at different times
– encourage everyone to wash their hands
– encourage everyone to cover their cough

Social distancing is absolutely necessary to minimize cross infection. When two people living with CF meet in person it increases the risk of each one developing infections from the potentially different bugs in each other’s lungs.

During the COVID-19 outbreak, however, there has been a heightened awareness, and worry, of coming in contact with individuals carrying the virus. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says that there is evidence to show that people with underlying health conditions, including lung disease, are at greater risk of developing a serious illness from COVID-19 if they become infected. For people with CF, this has meant additional vigilance to avoid infection while still being treated for our genetic condition; this has included routine well-visits being conducted by telehealth, or postponed if possible. And, while the general population is hopeful that shelter at home orders will soon lift, the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation (CFF) has already made a decision to extend the suspension of in-person Foundation events through June 30. This exercise of caution demonstrates how critical it is to avoid becoming infected.

In our conversation with Colleen, we learned that while her CF care routine remains the same, her daily life is a bit upside down. It’s not the need to wear a mask that causes any kind of concern– that’s something people with CF have been living with and navigate. It’s the need to be even more vigilant than that, especially since her husband continues to work outside of their home.

“A lot of things are different for us,” said Colleen. “I haven’t been inside any kind of store since the beginning of March– We do grocery pick-up and carefully clean all groceries and packages before they come into the house. Another major change is that my husband is now living in the basement as he doesn’t want to risk infecting me with anything he might bring home. It’s crazy that we don’t know how long this is going to go on but I try to do my best to live in the present. Since he’s living in the basement, it’s on my plate to take care of our kids while keeping up with my own work since I’m a fifth-grade teacher.”

To keep positive, Colleen has been finding solace in reaching out to family through video chats, sending artwork from her kids to family in the mail, and finding new ways to stay in touch with her husband, while he’s a flight of stairs away. “It sounds funny, but we’ve been texting so much more and are getting to know each other in a different way.” She is also taking advantage of the virtual CF events and how the pandemic is making it even more user friendly for the CF community to connect online.

Finding silver linings in the midst of this is inspiring to our team at Translate Bio. We have a unique and vibrant culture — one of our values is to “Act as One.”

“Life at TBio looks different than it did before our shelter-in-place. But one thing has stayed the same: we still strive to put people first — our employees, the CF community and the global community facing this pandemic — in all that we do. We have learned so much from our friends and partners in the CF community during this time and we are grateful to be one small part of this amazing, inspiring community.” — Maura Gavaghan, Translate Bio Associate Director, Corp.Comms.

So how do we all work and socialize meaningfully “as One” during this pandemic? We are turning to another core value during this time to stay connected — “Be Bold.”  Right now, being bold at TBio means we are all empowered and encouraged to pioneer new ways to engage with each other so that we continue to make progress with work while retaining the culture that gives us pride in our mission.

This took on even more relevance and urgency recently because of our additional collaboration with Sanofi Pasteur to develop a novel mRNA vaccine for SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus responsible for COVID-19. This collaboration leverages our mRNA platform as well as Sanofi’s vaccine expertise and ongoing COVID-19 research with the goal of advancing a novel mRNA vaccine rapidly to the clinic. Our team has already begun to produce multiple mRNA constructs and we’re highly motivated to design and manufacture SARS-CoV-2 vaccine candidates as quickly as possible. We’re humbled to be one of the many biotech and pharma companies working on this global, collaborative effort to combat COVID-19, and our team – working remotely and in shifts – is working tirelessly to do its part during this public health crisis.

How are we doing this? Like the rest of the business world, we are relying on video conferencing tools like Zoom each and every day to stay connected. Seeing fellow Translators’ faces – albeit virtually –is a definite mood booster! We also get our 100+ employees together on Zoom for team meetings once a week as a way to connect – virtually – and stay motivated during this time apart. In addition to seeing each other via Zoom, we’ve also launched the Translate Tribute — a Weekly E-Newsletter where we share reminders, celebrate work anniversaries, birthdays and more. We’ve kicked off virtual “clubs” on Microsoft’s Yammer where Translators can interact and share resources and ideas. We have even started bi-weekly Trivia Happy Hours!

We’ve learned much from the CF community — you always inspire and motivate. In the words of Kristin Dunn, an adult living with CF, “…here’s the good news: We all can work together meaningfully, celebrate together, and connect emotionally without ever being in the same room.” Take it from the CF community – we can do this social distancing thing – and we should, like our lives depend on it.