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Berkeley Conversations: Reopening and reimagining after COVID-19

By Public Affairs

How should we reopen safely and how will we tackle future pandemics? These were the two central questions that drove the “Berkeley Conversations: Reopening and reimagining after COVID-19” livecast on October 12, 2020.

Panelists included five professors from UC Berkeley’s School of Public Health specializing in epidemiology, biostatistics and infectious disease. The event was moderated by Michael C. Ludean of the school.

Dr. Arthur Reingold, head of epidemiology at Berkeley Public Health, kicked off the conversation by saying it’s crucial to keep washing hands, wearing masks and reducing unnecessary personal contacts to prevent a third wave of infections sparked by businesses and schools reopening.

Dr. John Swartzberg, clinical professor emeritus of infectious diseases and vaccinology, agreed that indoor settings like schools and universities are problematic in terms of virus spread, since the vast majority of transmission occurs within close quarters.

“You have to have some engineering solutions, like more air exchanges, etc.,” he said.

So, what can businesses and campuses do to prevent gatherings like sporting matches from becoming superspreader events?

Ziad Obermeyer, professor of health policy and management, used a crime scene as a metaphor for superspreading circumstances. “You have to think about the means, the motives and the opportunity,” he said.

Obermeyer noted that as researchers learn more about the novel coronavirus, it’s becoming clear that surfaces are not as likely to carry infection as initially thought. He noted that many businesses are emailing customers to reassure them about how they are cleaning surfaces, but they’re not saying anything about ventilation.

“The more we know about the virus, the more we should use the knowledge to focus on things that matter,” said Obermeyer.

The panelists also agreed that with more viruses capable of jumping from an animal host to a human host, it’s essential to build a surveillance and warning system to stop future viral spillovers.

“We have learned so much from this pandemic in terms of how badly we — the world as a whole, especially the United States — were ready to respond,” said Eva Harris, a professor of infectious diseases and vaccinology.

Since the pandemic hit the U.S. in early 2020, the country’s public health system has been challenged in many ways, partly because the U.S. has systematically underinvested in public health infrastructure for decades. Another complication is that each state has its own public health system, making underfunding easy when nothing terrible seems to be happening in the moment. And then there’s politics.

“Obviously, politics is always at play when we’re in public health,” said Reingold, “It’s never absent.”

The pandemic has changed the experts’ views on the role of public health in modern society. Obermeyer said that now is the time to reimagine public health as data science.

Integrating insights from a lot of new disciplines — computer science, economics, all of the other disciplines that have a lot to contribute to this area — will be key to battling pandemics of the future, Obermeyer said.