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Drexel Medicine and Public Health Experts on the Pulse of COVID-19

As the world continues to grapple with the ongoing pandemic, Drexel University’s College of Medicine and Dornsife School of Public Health experts sorted out what the research community has learned thus far and what questions remain about COVID-19.

“Clearly we’re not done with this pandemic,” Charles B. Cairns, MD, the Walter H. and Leonore Annenberg Dean and senior vice president of medical affairs at the College of Medicine, told NBC-10 “@Issue” last week. “The virus is as contagious as it’s always been. Frankly some reports suggest it could be more contagious.”

Cairns, who is also principal investigator on a national NIH AID-funded study on immune response among COVID-19 patients, told WCAU-TV (NBC-10) that researchers are still seeing wide variation in immune responses to infection.

As the pandemic continues to shape our daily routines, we know it’s not hitting evenly.

While some are fortunate to work from home or reside in areas with low case counts, it’s hitting some communities much harder than others.

“These front-line workers, disproportionately Black and brown, then are typically a part of residentially segregated communities,” working on site every day in jobs at disproportionately higher risk,” said Sharrelle Barber, ScD, assistant professor in the Dornsife School of Public Health, earlier this month in The New York Times Magazine

Holiday traditions are different this year.

Assistant Professor Kristen Lyall, ScD, shared Halloween advice and Assistant Professor Usama Bilal, PhD, MD, shared whether traditional Thanksgiving celebrations are still on for this year.

“This is a personal decision, and there are risk-versus-benefit calculations that people have to make,” Bilal told The Philadelphia Inquirer. “I would strongly advise against any sort of indoor gathering, but I wouldn’t necessarily advise against an outdoor one as long as you take the usual precautions — maintaining distance, wearing masks and limiting the number of people.”

Clinical Professor Jennifer Kolker agrees about the dangers of indoor gatherings this winter.

“Indoors and unmasked for me is the tipping point,” said in a recent Washington Post interview.

There is a “we’re all in this together” theme in many of these interviews—that we need to protect ourselves and all of those around us.

“It isn’t only you and your family — it’s the community,” Bilal said in a Marketwatch article this week. “If you are infected and you go visit family, there’s a risk that could lead to an outbreak for people beyond your family.”

The pandemic is especially hard for jobs that were particularly stressful even before the coronavirus hit.

Drexel’s Center for Firefighter Injury Research and Safety Trends (FIRST) partners with Philadelphia Fire Department to study mental health among firefighters during the pandemic, and the early data is sobering.

“It’s interesting because we are seeing some places around the country, not uniform but, we’ll see spikes in anxiety, spikes in depression. One of the things that’s concerning most is increases in intent to leave the profession,” Jennifer Taylor, PhD, the Arthur L. and Joanne B. Frank Professor, and director of the FIRST center, told WPVI-TV (6-abc).

Assistant teaching professor Michael LeVasseur, PhD, told The Philadelphia Inquirerthat those going to work every day assume more risk than those who work from home, but it doesn’t necessarily limit dating options. “Adding that risk [into your life] might be worth it, but you might have to change other things.”

While it’s tough making sense of how we got to this point, it’s an added challenge explaining the pandemic to young children.

Couple Joanna Suder and Neal D. Goldstein, PhD, an assistant research professor in the Dornsife School of Public Health, wrote a children’s book called “Pandemics for Babies,” complete with a safety plan, including hand washing, masks and social distancing.

Despite this, an upcoming vaccine is encouraging.

Operation Warp Speed promises to deliver an effective COVID-19 vaccine much faster than vaccines typically come to market. In their phase 3 clinical studies, drug maker Pfizer and Germany-based Biontech say their COVID-19 vaccine is more than 90% effective and Massachusetts-based biotech company Moderna says its vaccine is 94.5% effective—leading many Americans to wonder whether any side effects would prevent them from wanting to take either vaccine when they become available.

Cairns was asked by WCAU-TV (NBC-10)this week about how to combat misinformation about COVID-19 vaccine safety. 

“There’s a big gap in terms of people willing to take the vaccine when it becomes available,” Cairns said. “To address that gap, I really think we need to address health literacy so people understand the benefits of vaccines, and frankly the consequences of getting this infection, and there also needs to be plenty of access tools, so when people hear about a vaccine, they know there is a plan to get it to people in a timely matter.”

Among the national leaders who created that plan to get a vaccine to those who need it in the most timely and effective manner is Ana V. Diez Roux, MD, PhD, dean of the Dornsife School of Public Health, who serves on The National Academies Committee on Equitable Allocation of Vaccine for the Novel Coronavirus which released a framework this fall for distribution of an upcoming COVID-19 vaccine.

The key is distributing the vaccine where it can save the most lives and reduce cases.

“Well, it’s not what the framework recommends, that athletes jump to the front of the line,’’ said Diez Roux in a USA Today article this week about whether athletes in the 2021 Tokyo Olympics will get priority access to the vaccine. “because there are other groups, based on these principles that we developed in terms of maximizing the benefit (of the vaccine). The overall goal with the allocation framework is really to reduce disease and death, obviously first priority, and also to reduce the societal impact of the pandemic, which means allowing people to go back to work, children to go back to school, etc.”

Before and after a vaccine comes to market, experts continue shouting from the rooftops: public health measures work.

Leslie Ain McClure, PhD, a professor and chair at the Dornsife School of Public Health, recently told Business Insider that masks and social distancing should be in our lives for the foreseeable future. 

Implementing proven public health measures coupled with effective public health messaging to combat distrust among some people in government and vaccines indeed saves lives.

Despite the unanswered questions that remain, these experts and others remain steadfast at getting to the answers. 

“Transparency is a huge part of it, but part of this conversation also needs to be telling the public that science is uncertain and explaining how science evolves over time,” Goldstein told Philadelphia magazine in October.

Media interested in interviewing these and other COVID-19 experts from the College of Medicine, Dornsife School of Public Health, or School of Biomedical Engineering, Science and Health Systems should contact News Manager Greg Richter at or 215-895-2614.

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