As the world grapples with how to contain the coronavirus, also called COVID-19, experts are sharing their knowledge in hopes of solving what has turned into a global crisis.
Former Vermont Epidemiology Program Chief Elizabeth Huen lives in South Burlington.
In light of the COVID-19 pandemic – and response to it – Huen offered her historic knowledge of epidemiology, which is the study of infectious diseases and their causes.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggests washing hands, not touching the face, social distancing practices, staying home when sick and cleaning and disinfecting regularly touched surfaces, among other preventive measures.
“It’s completely reasonable to consider lowering your own personal risk of infection by washing your hands and not touching your face and all of the things that will lower your own personal risk of infection,” Huen said. “When you’re trying to contain an outbreak, it’s really reasonable to consider global recommendations to not be in contact with large groups or in close contact.”
That’s why it made sense for local organizations like the University of Vermont to cancel large gatherings and sporting events, Huen said.
“As an individual, you say to yourself, ‘The number of times that I can personally lower the number of people I have contact with that lowers my personal risk,’” Huen said. Larger organizations like the University of Vermont Medical Center can “dampen the effect of transmission,” she said, by lowering the number of people who come in contact with each other.
And it’s fair to say Huen has never seen anything like this from the perspective of a public health response, she told The Other Paper.
“In 2020, we have access to so much immediate communication, through social media and so on. It’s not the first time we have confronted a huge potential risk like this. But is it the first time we’ve had this much immediate access to information to respond to it?” she said. “Back in the day, before we had instant social media access to this kind of data people just waited until they knew more. Now, people demand more, people demand more information. And it’s just, it’s not knowable accurately.”
Huen said it would likely take a few weeks, in the best of circumstances, to determine how accurate the test is, how long the incubation period is and what risks are associated with exposure to asymptomatic carriers of the virus are.
The demand for information places a lot of pressure on decision makers, she said. But there are some positive aspects.
“The good side of the accountability is that we know we can expect to ask good questions of experts,” Huen said. She added that while experts can’t know everything about the virus just yet, people can turn to trustworthy sources such as the department of health and CDC for information on the virus.
As for the rush on toilet paper and hand sanitizer, Huen said it’s not an action she has personally taken – but she understands peoples’ motives.
“Sometimes we overreact to those kinds of preparedness at the expense of more important decisions that could be made,” she said. “But I understand the human impulse to want to try to control something in their lives. It seems out of control, it’s a pretty scary time.”
She said she hopes the behavior does not cross over into rushes on medical equipment.
“Personal protective devices are kind of wasted on the rest of us when hospital employees could use them better,” Huen said.
And when it comes to travel, she acknowledges restrictions can be tricky.
“As an individual I might wish to travel with freedom because I want to be with my family, for example,” Huen said. “But unless there is a compelling reason to travel, I put myself at risk when I travel.”
Huen also spoke to the challenges of restricting aspects of everyday life, like Gov. Phil Scott’s decision to close all pre K-12 schools until at least April 6.
“Generally, state officials, in an outbreak situation, must make very tough choices. They have to weigh what is known … against what might be ... When they choose to be conservative, they are choosing saving lives over inconveniencing many people,” Huen said. “I am proud of what Gov. Scott and the rest of the state has chosen to do. It is brave. It communicates a faith in the people of our state that we choose solidarity against adversity. We are saying we care about the lives of the people in our community enough to risk short-term inconveniences.”