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Current measures ‘insufficient’ to reduce transmission compared to stay home orders

A mural reads "Stay Home, Life is Beautiful' Tuesday, April 14, 2020, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

Unfortunately, the worst of 2020 may still be ahead in terms of the pandemic, according to Dr. Angela Rasmussen, a virologist at Columbia University and a weekly guest on KIRO Radio’s Gee & Ursula Show. While she admitted it’s hard to say for sure, she pointed to the increased community transmission in hot spots across the United States seeing more cases, more deaths, and hospitals at capacity as a sign of what could be ahead.

“I think that the measures that have been implemented [in these hot spots] to reduce community transmission and try to get those numbers back down are really insufficient compared to what we were all doing in March and April when we instituted full stay home orders,” she said.

While some places have implemented stay home orders, there are still governors who have issued executive orders, for example, that no local areas are allowed to pass laws mandating the use of masks to prevent transmission, Rasmussen said.

“So we’re not taking the steps that we took in April to reduce transmission when we successfully flattened the curve in many places,” she added. “And that’s really concerning because the time to institute those stay home orders should have been at the beginning of June when those cases started to climb. They’re still not implemented in many of these places, and now we’re starting to see deaths climbing, and that really bodes poorly for the people who live in those areas.”

Plus, fall and flu season are just around the corner.

“[We] may be looking at more illness from people who are getting seasonal flu as well as contracting Covid, potentially,” Rasmussen said.

Virologist: Despite unclear data, still ‘dangerous’ to assume schools will be safe

Returning to the classroom

Speaking of fall, the question of whether or not to return to in-person learning, to open schools or keep them closed, has been the big question on the minds of parents, teachers, and students.

“I don’t think that you can justify opening schools in places that are hot spots, for sure,” Rasmussen said. “Schools are part of the community, just like every other essential business or essential service. And I think that it’s just really asking a lot of people to not only put their children at risk, but to put themselves at risk by sending children to school in communities where there is widespread, undetected community transmission of coronavirus.”

Her opinion is that in most areas, there should not be a full return to in-person learning as community transmission has not been successfully controlled.

In response to a listener who asked why schools have successfully reopened in Europe and Asia but can’t in the United States, Rasmussen said it’s because Europe and Asia controlled community transmission to the point where it is unlikely people in a school environment will be exposed to COVID-19.

“And if they are, then contact tracing and testing procedures are likely to be able to break those chains of community transmission before they become widespread,” she said. “Right now, in the U.S., in over 30 states, I think, we have uncontrolled community transmission that we can’t track, and there’s too much of it to stay on top of with test and trace measures like I just described. So we need to get to where Europe and Asia [were] before they reopened, before we can expect to safely send people back to school, or go back to restaurants, or anything like that.”

Waiting for a vaccine

Unfortunately, Rasmussen said she’s not very optimistic that COVID-19 will soon be a thing of the past.

“There has been a sliver of good news in the past couple of weeks showing that there are a couple vaccine candidates that do stimulate immune responses that we think are probably protective,” she said. “But we haven’t confirmed that with phase three efficacy trials. So right now, a vaccine is something that we’re still hoping and waiting for.”

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Once a vaccine candidate is proven to work, there’s still the matter of manufacturing enough that everyone has access, which Rasmussen sees as being a huge problem in the coming months.

“I think that things will not go back to normal until we do have a safe and effective vaccine,” she said.

“I’m cautiously optimistic that, given this news, these vaccines will actually work, and we may start seeing access to them in early 2021 or, at the earliest, very late in 2020,” she added. “But that’s still going to be a matter of months once the vaccine is available that it’s going to take to vaccinate everybody where we can start resuming our normal pre-pandemic lives.”

Finding a trusted source

A lot of people don’t want to listen to Dr. Fauci, Dr. Birx, or even Dr. Rasmussen, Gee pointed out. So who can people turn to instead?

“Well, I’d say look to your state and local leadership, but that’s highly dependent on who that leadership is,” Rasmussen said. “Unfortunately, in some of these hot spot states, governors and local leadership have made decisions that are really based on politics a lot more than they’re based on science or concern for public health.”

In Washington state, the leadership has been largely evidence based, she said.

“But probably somebody who doesn’t want to listen to me or listen to Dr. Fauci isn’t going to necessarily be persuaded by Governor Inslee’s evidence-based approach to this virus,” she recognized. “So it’s very difficult to recommend somebody because so many sources are telling people different things. What I say at the very least, is don’t go to Facebook or even Twitter, necessarily, for guidance. I would look to your local public health officials and see what they’re recommending, and think of your family when you’re doing it, because those recommendations are intended to keep you and your family safe.”

Daydreaming of travel

A listener asked about the safety of air travel, and when to consider jumping on a plane to visit their son.

“That’s an excellent question, because I’m missing my apartment in New York that I haven’t been back to since March,” Rasmussen said. “‘I don’t know’ is the short answer. Right now, there’s no guarantee that if you get on a plane, they’re going to be able to enforce mask wearing or physical distancing.”

It’s always going to be a risk to get on a plane, especially if it’s crowded. If you do decide to fly, Rasmussen says you should at least wear a mask, bring hand sanitizer, and try not to eat, drink, or take your mask off onboard.

Similarly, if you choose to participate in a low-risk activity, like seeing a friend outdoors, Rasmussen emphasized the importance of wearing masks, keeping your distance from one another, and practicing good hand hygiene. Bars and enclosed spaces should be avoided, she added.

“Bars have all the things that increase your risk of coronavirus transmission,” Rasmussen said. “They have people who are generally close together, not wearing masks, they’re enclosed spaces inside, and people are not necessarily practicing the best hand hygiene either.”

Additionally, whenever you add alcohol to the mix, people tend to be less inhibited and therefore less likely to observe distancing and mask precautions.

“So any time you have all of those factors combining, they increase your risk overall,” she said. “So avoid enclosed spaces. Avoid crowds of people. Avoid people who are standing very close to you for long periods of time. Make sure you wear a mask, and try to avoid people who are not wearing one.”

Listen to the Gee and Ursula Show weekday mornings from 9 a.m. – 12 p.m. on KIRO Radio, 97.3 FM. Subscribe to the podcast here.

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