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COVID-19 From the Perspective of a Budding Epidemiologist

By George Gorton, III

Some of you may know that I spent the last 5 ½ years of my evenings and weekends earning a Ph.D. in public health. In particular, I studied epidemiology – the study of what causes disease, how it travels through populations, and what we can do to prevent it. I chose this field because I was interested in how we use data to develop the evidence for decisions about health. It seems almost ironic now. The COVID-19 pandemic has made many epidemiology terms familiar to the general public – pandemic, surge, flattening the curve, social distancing, risk factors, herd immunity and mortality rate, to name a few. These are all topics that I have studied in depth.

When COVID-19 cases began appearing in Massachusetts in early March, I carefully tracked the distribution of new cases based on data from sources such as the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, Johns Hopkins University and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. I developed mathematical models predicting when peak would occur in different counties and what effect social distancing would have. I researched how long COVID-19 would survive on different surfaces and the effectiveness of different mask filter materials in slowing transmission rates. I looked at the sensitivity and specificity of laboratory tests and their role in detecting and tracing the course of the pandemic. You get it…yes, I am that guy.

From my perspective, COVID-19 is terrifying – it is one of the few diseases that is contagious, can be transmitted by people without symptoms, affects young and old people alike, has systemic effects on the body, and has a moderately high mortality rate. At this point, about 10% of the U.S. population has been exposed. Since there is no vaccine in sight for 12-18 months at least, and no cure, that means when we stop social distancing, wearing masks, and washing hands, COVID-19 cases will increase. We have seen that already in places like Washington D.C. and Arkansas where lack of vigilance has resulted in renewed outbreaks.

So what is my point? COVID-19 has infected more than 1.7 million people in the U.S., and it has caused more than 100,000 deaths. By the end of May we will surpass the number of deaths from every war since World War II – combined. We still don’t know enough about COVID-19 and we can’t effectively control it. The only tools we currently have at our disposal are mitigation strategies – social distancing, wearing masks and washing hands. This has flattened the curve enough so that we have not exceeded the capacity of our health care system. In 1918, during the Spanish Flu outbreak, these strategies were not widely supported and 675,000 in the U.S. died as a result. What we need next is investment in our public health infrastructure to track cases and provide guidance, investment in our testing and case tracing capacity, and a vaccine. Until then…my advice is to follow public health guidelines as we begin to ramp up our efforts to return to work while keeping the virus at bay.

George Gorton, III, MS, CCRP, Ph.D. is the director of planning and business development for the Boston and Springfield Shriners Hospitals. He holds a Ph.D. in Public Health and Epidemiology from Walden University in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Dr. Gorton began working for the Springfield Shriners Hospital in 1991 and took on a regional role for both hospitals in 2018.

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