Cornellians respond to coronavirus

Cornellians are offering care, intelligence, and hope in response to the global pandemic that has paused life as we know it.

Mehrdad Zarifkar ’09 has volunteered for the Mount Vernon Fire Department since 2005 when he arrived in town as a Cornell student.

Dr. Garrett Feddersen ’08, who implemented many changes at his hospital at the onset of the COVID-19 crisis, said that in a pandemic, we help ourselves by helping others. “It’s been a long time in the United States since we’ve seen anything like this,” he said. “The more we can look out for each other and help each other, the better off we can be.”

Many Cornellians are first responders. Others are involved in building temporary medical facilities, conducting research, and serving on a national vaccine consultation panel. In a myriad of ways these alumni offer direct and indirect support as we navigate the pandemic.

Each brief below links to a longer article.

First responders

Mehrdad Zarifkar ’09 has volunteered for the Mount Vernon Fire Department since he came to town as a Cornell student in 2005. Now a parent, Zarifkar was inspired to come up with programs to keep kids entertained every week when schools closed during the pandemic. He hosted a popular Facebook Live fire station tour and drive-by parades with the new fire truck.

In March Dr. Perry Cook ’72, an oncologist in New York City, predicted “this is both a medical and administrative crisis with poor planning and limited response. Routine misinformation … is further infuriating.” He provided expertise from the field and answered questions from students in Cornell Biology Professor Barbara Christie-Pope’s Block 8 online course, The Science of COVID-19.

As director of emergency services for Buena Vista Regional Medical Center in Storm Lake, Iowa, Dr. Garrett Feddersen ’08 implemented many changes as COVID-19 was discovered, such as restricting visitor access and limiting nonessential visits. “If it looks like we overreacted, then we succeeded,” Feddersen said.

At the start of the pandemic, Sean Thomas ’96, an emergency room patient care technician in Phoenix, Arizona, reported dwindling supplies. “We started out with what we thought was a plentiful supply of masks, visors, gowns, and gloves, but we’re now starting to see shortages,” he said in late March. “We now have staff making their own masks, so they know that at least they’ll have some level of protection for themselves.”

Dr. Jeff Kinyon ’98’s hospital in New Jersey is the third busiest ER in the United States on a normal day. When the epicenter of the pandemic struck the region last spring, they moved their ER to the waiting room and set up tents in the parking lot. “What’s been frustrating is how this pandemic has exposed the health disparities in this country and the risk factors for bad outcomes–asthma, diabetes, cardiac disease–being most prevalent in our most vulnerable and underinsured populations,” he said.

Dr. David Hilmers ’72 is deeply dedicated to working on global health initiatives, having served on disaster relief teams and missions in more than 50 countries. In March he decided it was time to return to the U.S. to help fight the coronavirus pandemic in Houston where he serves as a professor of internal medicine and pediatrics at Baylor College of Medicine.


As chief of staff for the New York City-based global intelligence and advisory firm Ergo, Katy Banks ’15 focused on efforts to provide early intelligence and bold predictions on COVID-19. Partnering with government officials, leading epidemiologists, policy makers, and economists, Banks and her colleagues launched the COVID-19 Intelligence Forum to help decision-makers understand what is coming before it comes.

A former deputy general counsel at the paper and medical supplies manufacturing corporation Kimberly-Clark, Tamra Thompson Toussaint ’86 was tapped for her knowledge of legally compliant ways of breaking regulation roadblocks, and helped Georgia obtain personal protective equipment (PPE) to keep its citizens safe and healthy.


When Seattle became an early hotspot for the pandemic, John Wilkinson ’90, a superintendent for Prime Electric, oversaw the construction of eight temporary medical facilities. Prime joined forces with other trade unions to bring nearly 1,000 hospital beds to the area by adding temporary trailers and large tents to vacant lots and soccer fields and retrofitting existing buildings.

Human services

Rhonda Lieberman ’83 was determined to find a way all 65 of her essential personnel social workers could work from home instead of meeting clients in the Bronx. “Our clients are among the most vulnerable, but my staff is human and were equally worried about their own situations. I am happy to say that within a week, all of my staff were fully equipped to work remotely.”

Emily Zimmon ’12 is the support services director at Willis Dady Homeless Services in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. “Our Homeless Prevention team is working to support individuals and families who are fearful of losing their housing due to job loss,” Zimmon reported. “Street Outreach is checking in on clients regularly, while also providing basic necessities such as water.”

Will Widmer ’04 photographed a mostly deserted Bourbon Street in downtown New Orleans on March 18 for the New York Times. Local and state law enforcement vehicles patrol the area using loudspeakers to encourage locals to go home, and tourists to return to their hotels.
Will Widmer ’04 photographed a mostly deserted Bourbon Street in downtown New Orleans on March 18 for the New York Times. Local and state law enforcement vehicles patrol the area using loudspeakers to encourage locals to go home, and tourists to return to their hotels.


New Orleans-based photojournalist Will Widmer ’04 has been chronicling the pandemic for major media outlets including The New York Times Magazine, Washington Post, The New Yorker, and Rolling Stone. One of his projects was about the first COVID-19 outbreak in a federal prison, in which he tried to capture a sense of place while not having any access to the prison facility.


Prior to the COVID-19 outbreak, Jennifer Nielsen Elwood ’98 worked at the State Hygienic Laboratory in Coralville, Iowa, tracking and identifying antimicrobial resistance in patients throughout Iowa. Now she’s testing the COVID-19 specimen swabs during the night shift to keep up with the demand.

Public health

Steve Anderson ’75 was named by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to serve on the COVID-19 Vaccine Consultation Panel. A critical component is ensuring public understanding, acceptance, and participation in any vaccine campaign, he said. Anderson is the president and CEO of the National Association of Chain Drug Stores.

Darren Rausch ’99, health officer and director of the Greenfield Health Department in Greenfield, Wisconsin, led the efforts of 11 municipal health departments to coordinate their response across sectors, including healthcare, emergency medical services, fire, police, municipal government, and more.

Michael Baca ’13 is part of the University of Iowa Hospitals & Clinics emergency management team involved in coordinating a statewide community response. He is the clinic administrator for the Center for Disabilities and Development (CDD), part of the University of Iowa Stead Family Children’s Hospital. Like clinics around the world, CDD transitioned to more virtual and telephonic visits.

Do you have a story to share about responding to COVID-19? We invite you to send it to

Read the other stories in this series:

A small college with big data

The story of how Cornell adapted

One online course at a time

The 1918 pandemic