Coexisting with COVID-19: …No Really, Are We THERE Yet???

Written by Madeleine Jenness; Assistant Editor

It’s the 21st day of the 21st year in the 21st century, and we are in the midst of a global pandemic that has taken the lives of close to 450,000 people. In the 14th episode of the series “Coexisting with COVID-19: …No Really, Are We THERE Yet???” Moderator Hanson Hosein interviews University of Washington doctors Helen Chu and Vinay Gupta on January 21st, 2021.

One of the toughest facts to confront is how avoidable the severity of COVID-19 in the United States would have been if greater action and leadership had been taken by the previous administration. “How avoidable was this?” Hosein asks Dr. Gupta.

“If we’re looking back on the last year, it’s clear that if we had the personnel in place, if we had a focus on preparedness for pandemics, if that was a focus of our government for the years preceding this pandemic, we would have averted the worst of it. I’m convinced of that. […] If we had the ability to have a national strategy, if we had consistent messaging […] If we had a strategic national stockpile that was appropriately equipped with the N95 masks and ventilators, so we weren’t having these conversations in real-time […] Assuredly, a forward-focused or forward-thinking approach to pandemic preparedness and appropriate leadership would have allowed us to follow a trajectory that was more akin to what many of our allies have experienced.”

Dr. Gupta; UW Doctor

Dr. Gupta goes on to describe the outbreak in the U.S. as “the worst outbreak worldwide.” 

However, previous governments had in fact put together a pandemic preparedness team. The National Science and Technology Council, within the Executive Office of the President, had created the Pandemic Prediction and Forecasting Science and Technology (PPFST) Working Group in 2013 under the Obama administration. The PPFST published “Towards Epidemic Prediction: Federal Efforts and Opportunities in Outbreak Modeling” in December of 2016 describing the threat of disease outbreaks. 

The office was disbanded in 2018, a year after surviving the transition to the Trump administration. As reported by the Washington Post in 2018, “The top White House official [Rear Adm. Timothy Ziemer] responsible for leading the U.S. response in the event of a deadly pandemic has left the administration, and the global health security team he oversaw has been disbanded under a reorganization by national security adviser John Bolton.” 

On 21 January 2021, the same day as this recording took place, WhiteHouse.gov—now under the Biden administration—published a statement on “National Security Memorandum on United States Global Leadership to Strengthen the International COVID-19 Response and to Advance Global Health Security and Biological Preparedness.” 

This statement included discussion of President Biden rejoining the World Health Organization (WHO) on his first day in office, positioning the United States as a Global Leader in COVID-19 responses, reviewing funding for the United States’ response to COVID-19 and greater biodefense, financing for global health security, and advancing global health security and epidemic and pandemic preparedness. 

If you would like to read the whole statement, you may do so here: https://tinyurl.com/5gjbbqtc (leads to WhiteHouse.gov). 

The doctors also discussed the hotly debated issue of reopening schools.

“I don’t think it makes a ton of sense [to re-open schools]. Four weeks ago, I was on-board with opening schools. We had reasonable data that was replicated across several studies suggesting that children don’t transmit the virus as readily as adults.”

Dr. Gupta; UW Doctor

This opinion—as is common in science—was changed after new information presented itself. “In the UK, they noticed more cases because schools were actually one of the only places in society that were open. That’s where they were detecting some of these increased case rates, and so they shut down schools. I’m hearing from teachers unions and teachers across the country that they want to get vaccinated before they were to go back to in-person instruction. And I have to say, it’s consistent. Why gather in a congregate setting with an uncertain situation if you can avoid it. Even though we all recognize virtual instruction is not ideal […] My vote would be, let’s vaccinate people before we put them into an in-person environment […] so we can mitigate the loss of life.”

Dr. Chu somewhat agreed with this but was adamant about getting schools back opened.

 “I don’t think the risk of missing school for two years is worth the risk. I would say get the teachers vaccinated […] and at that point, that’s when we reopen, but I would not wait another year for pediatric vaccines.”

Dr. Chu; UW Doctor

Dr. Gupta added: “I’m completely aligned with what Helen just mentioned, my comments were directed at teachers and adult staff.”

What they did not address was the transmission rates of COVID-19 between children and subsequently, their families. It is true that COVID-19 cases in children are commonly not as severe or deadly as in adults or the elderly, however, this does not negate the potential for spread from children in schools to their families. 

For example, a community member close to Student Media who is an essential worker teaching at a daycare facility working with infants, contracted COVID-19 from a 6-month-old. Harvard University reported that “Though the recent studies varied in their methods, their findings were similar: infected children had as much, or more, coronavirus in their upper respiratory tracts as infected adults,” and that children may be capable of spreading the virus. (Source: https://www.health.harvard.edu/diseases-and-conditions/coronavirus-outbreak-and-kids)

Another important point the doctors discussed was the need to implement the use of 3-ply, 3-layer, or simply better masks, such as the N-95. 

“I’ve seen a ton of college-aged students […] just pulling something up, and we know that doesn’t work,” Dr. Gupta emphasizes, making it clear he means no offense against the younger generation. 

Dr. Chu also emphasized that you are less likely to carry the virus if vaccinated, but that should not keep you from taking the same precautions you were taking before getting vaccinated. 

Dr. Gupta adds that “we had great science on masks for a long time but it didn’t matter, we had terrible communication.”

Hosein concludes the interview by asking the doctors what they hope will change as a result of the pandemic. Dr. Chu immediately says “universal healthcare,” and Dr. Gupta, who had also initially thought about universal healthcare, described the desire that: “We should fundamentally push for the WHO to have an effector mechanism.”

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