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Expert insight on Coronavirus

Photos by Evan Krape | Video by University Media Services

Scientists, physicians and a historian bring clarity, counsel and context on COVID-19

When virus information goes viral — as it has since the first reports of the 2019 coronavirus outbreak emerged in December — it can pick up a lot of toxic pollutants along the way. The remedy: facts, expert insight and context.

The University of Delaware provided just that kind of remedy Wednesday, March 4, hosting a 90-minute panel discussion to bring the UD community and the public up to speed on COVID-19, the official name of the virus behind this outbreak.

Scientists, physicians, health care professionals and a savvy historian presented information and counsel, busted some myths and took dozens of questions from the audience in Mitchell Hall. The event was livestreamed on the University’s website.

The executive summary would echo themes from the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, namely:

  • Protect yourself and others by washing hands carefully and often, cleaning frequently touched surfaces, controlling sneezes and coughs, avoiding touching your face and staying home when sick.

  • Prepare for potential disruptions in work or school schedules.

  • Don’t panic or hoard supplies.

  • Your pets don’t need masks or respirators — and you probably don’t either, unless you work in health care or in an occupation that specifically requires it.

  • And please, please, please — don’t drink bleach or swallow fake news!

There is cause for concern and appropriate response, as the number of cases grows and spreads. An interactive map curated by Johns Hopkins University shows the status of confirmed cases around the world, which by Thursday afternoon had grown to almost 100,000.

Panelists discuss health preparedness for the coronavirus in Delaware. From left, Dr. Stephen Eppes, infectious disease specialist, ChristianaCare; Timothy Bowers, director of infection prevention, ChristianaCare, Dr. Timothy Dowling, director of UD Student Health Services; and Dr. Karyl Rattay, director of the Delaware Division of Public Health.
Panelists discuss health preparedness for the coronavirus in Delaware. From left, Dr. Stephen Eppes, infectious disease specialist, ChristianaCare; Timothy Bowers, director of infection prevention, ChristianaCare, Dr. Timothy Dowling, director of UD Student Health Services; and Dr. Karyl Rattay, director of the Delaware Division of Public Health.

This new COVID-19 variant, unknown before December 2019, is now considered an epidemic and “coronavirus” has become a household word, capable of shaping the global economy and clearing store shelves of hand sanitizer, nitrile gloves and face masks.

That’s why the event was planned, said Provost Robin Morgan, at the recommendation of three faculty members — Karen Rosenberg (anthropology), Tom Powers (philosophy) and John Jungck (biology and mathematical sciences).

“It’s a story that continues to evolve, capturing the attention of the entire world at this point,” Morgan said.

A panel of UD faculty presented on what a coronavirus is, how it emerges and the prospects for developing a vaccine. From left, Calvin Keeler, professor of animal and food sciences; Lawrence Duggan, professor of history; and Jennifer Horney, professor of epidemiology.
A panel of UD faculty presented on what a coronavirus is, how it emerges and the prospects for developing a vaccine. The panelists are, from left, Calvin Keeler, professor of animal and food sciences; Lawrence Duggan, professor of history; and Jennifer Horney, professor of epidemiology.

The event included two panels. The first addressed the science of coronavirus, epidemiology and the historic context of such diseases. The second addressed infection, prevention, UD planning and efforts by the state of Delaware to prepare and address the situation. Lydia Timmins, assistant professor of communication, moderated.

Detection and context

Prof. Calvin Keeler (animal and food sciences) sketched out the emergence of the virus from animal sources — bats, specifically —and compared it to SARS (2002), MERS (2012) and more common forms of influenza.

The virus now is detected by its genetic material, specifically its RNA, in those who have symptoms consistent with this respiratory virus. The hope is to develop methods that detect antibodies, which show previous exposure even if no symptoms of disease have been shown. That more comprehensive detection method probably will demonstrate that the virus has a lower mortality rate.

“I would worry more about fake news and hoaxes,” Keeler said. “Amazon has removed a million sites that are gouging or promoting misleading claims. It does not work to soak yourself in sesame oil. Eating garlic does not prevent the disease. This is not due to a rollout of 5G. And Corona beer sales have dropped significantly and beer has nothing to do with this. So be careful where you get your news from.”

Dr. Karyl Rattay, director of the Delaware Division of Public Health, highlighted the measures the state is taking to prepare for infections, working with corporations, long-term care facilities, the school system, higher education and other partners. A call center recently has been launched.
Dr. Karyl Rattay, director of the Delaware Division of Public Health, highlighted the measures the state is taking to prepare for infections, working with corporations, long-term care facilities, the school system, higher education and other partners. A call center recently has been launched.

Prof. Lawrence Duggan, a historian whose expertise is in the late medieval and Renaissance and Reformation periods (14th, 15th and 16th centuries), described the emergence of the plague and other diseases that have spread their deadly impact as globalization has increased. The plague, he said, still kills a dozen people a year in the United States.

There has been nothing like the Great Influenza of 1918-19, he pointed out.

“Ladies and gentlemen, count your blessings,” he said.

Development of new vaccines and antibiotics have offered significant protection and the counsel of health care experts should be respected.

“There is a saying that eternal vigilance is the price of liberty,” he said. “Eternal cleanliness is the price of health.”

Prof. Jennifer Horney of UD’s Disaster Research Center and founder of the University’s program in epidemiology, discussed public health surveillance, the need for timely reporting, complete data and the emergence of “syndromic” surveillance, which includes “influenza-like illness.”

Dr. Timothy Dowling, director of Student Health Services at the University of Delaware, discussed what UD is doing to prepare for potential coronavirus infections on campus and what we can do to minimize the risk of infection.
Dr. Timothy Dowling, director of Student Health Services at the University of Delaware, discussed what UD is doing to prepare for potential coronavirus infections on campus and what we can do to minimize the risk of infection.

Increasing the capacity to test is essential, she said, and it is important to ensure all countries impacted also have that capacity as well as protective equipment and laboratory capacity. Appropriate science-based information is essential.

“We’re really bad at knowing what we should be afraid of,” she said.

After the 9/11 terrorist attacks, she said, 1.4 million people changed holiday plans to avoid flying, resulting in 1,000 more highway fatalities. In 2017, poor diets accounted for about 11 million deaths.

“So I’ll leave you with that thought of thinking about how you prioritize things that concern you,” she said.

Public health and planning

Dr. Stephen Eppes, infectious disease specialist with ChristianaCare, said the virus is respiratory in nature and of concern mostly because of its potential complications, especially for the elderly and those with underlying health conditions. Cardiac and kidney damage are of special concern. Children and pregnant women, however, seem to be less vulnerable to this particular virus. But kids can transmit the virus, which explains why some schools may close temporarily.

Only about 20 percent of those infected experience significant symptoms, Eppes said, and about 80 percent of them have mild symptoms. The virus is considered when there is fever, respiratory illness and some kind of link with an area of the world where the virus has been present or seriously ill with those kinds of symptoms, Eppes said.

Delaware received its testing kits Monday, but testing capacity remains inadequate, said Dr. Karyl Rattay, director of Delaware’s Division of Public Health.

She expects to see the virus circulate in Delaware, but no one knows when that will happen.

“We are eager to ramp up our surveillance to understand if, when and how much this is in the community,” she said.

In the meantime, planning continues with school districts, long-term-care facilities, corporations and other settings. The state opened a call center Wednesday at (866) 408-1899 and also offers email responses from dphcall@delaware.gov.

Dr. Timothy Dowling, director of Student Health Services at UD, said the University has plans in place that draw from its experience with the H1N1 flu pandemic in 2009. Regular drills are done and planning for this specific outbreak has been in progress since January, including partners across campus.

Plans for spring break and regular messages to students and the UD community are ongoing, he said.

“We want to assure the safety of the University of Delaware, Newark and the state of Delaware,” he said.

UD is looking at how it may revise plans for large-scale events, how it might use online instruction methods if necessary and has emergency operations systems ready.

“We will respond quickly and effectively to any COVID-19 case,” he said.

One faculty member asked if the University would make it much easier for students to remain on campus during spring break.

Such suggestions will be among the considerations of the emergency operations team, Dowling said, along with advisories related to faculty, staff and student travel.

“Things will evolve and change,” he said. “One reason we have our emergency management system is so that we can be more nimble.”

He urged all to remain aware of developments by monitoring UD’s Coronavirus website.

There are no recommendations for antiviral treatment yet, Eppes said, but patients will get supportive care. There are hopes for vaccine development in the near future.

Timothy Bowers, director of infection prevention at ChristianaCare, wiped his hands with hand sanitizer as he reached the podium and stressed the need for personal hygiene practices.

The health care system tracks infectious diseases constantly, he said, and has many strategies and processes to protect front-line caregivers and keep the community safe.

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