Coronavirus: science and solutions

On April 13, UC Berkeley School of Public Health Dean Michael C. Lu and a panel of public health faculty hosted a virtual town hall to address questions about the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

While the COVID-19 pandemic continues to devastate communities around the world, researchers at UC Berkeley are racing to find solutions that will both secure our health and help get the economy back on its feet.

As part of the Berkeley Conversations: COVID-19 series of live webcasts, Berkeley School of Public Health Dean Michael C. Lu joined a panel of experts in epidemiology, infectious diseases, vaccinology, biostatistics, pediatrics, global health and health disparities to address some of the most pressing questions that remain about the disease, and to discuss how each is applying their unique specialties to tackling the problems posed by the epidemic.

The Bay Area may be seeing its “peak” number of cases this week, thanks to early and aggressive social distancing policies enacted in the region and the state of California, said Nick Jewell, a professor of biostatistics, and Maya Petersen, an associate professor of epidemiology and biostatistics.

However, that doesn’t mean we can end shelter-in-place restrictions anytime soon. Before returning to normal activities, policymakers and public health officials need to enact more thorough and rapid testing procedures to ensure the disease can be contained and create detailed plans for safely transitioning out of shelter-in-place without triggering future outbreaks, agreed many of the panelists.

Further, while social distancing may be helping to contain the virus among more relatively affluent populations, many marginalized people, including those who lack adequate housing, and those who are unable to work from home, remain disproportionately impacted by the disease.

Amani Allen, an associate professor of community health sciences and epidemiology, advocates for expanded testing and an infusion of health care services and supplies into areas that are being hardest hit by the disease. Those people currently experiencing homelessness should be moved out of congregate settings and encampments and into hotels, said Colette (Coco) Auerswald, an associate professor of community health sciences.

“If we are going to properly shelter in place, flatten the curve, decrease the demand for services, protect our health care workers and lift shelter-in-place safely, really everyone has got to be sheltered in place,” Auerswald said.

While serological tests are now coming online that can identify antibodies to coronavirus in an individual’s blood, researchers are still not sure whether the presence of antibodies in the blood actually grants immunity to the virus. Therefore, while researchers like panelist Eva Harris, a professor of infectious diseases and vaccinology, are using these tests to determine who has been exposed to the coronavirus in the past, she said a positive antibody test should not be considered a “passport” back to public life.

“The serological tests … are very important and very effective for estimating the prevalence of how many people have been infected in a population, but they are not very good … in proving that you are immune,” Jewell said.

The expert panelists also took a variety of questions that were submitted live during the event, including on how to properly wear masks, how to address the psychological impacts of the pandemic and how easily the virus is transmitted between humans and animals.

To conclude the event, Auerswald encouraged all viewers to visit the School of Public Health Community Action Team website, which contains a variety of resources for community members in need of help and ways to give support.

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