Faculty address coronavirus concerns: ‘There is no playbook for this’

Tuesday, March 17, 2020 - 7:42pm

The LSA International Institute hosted a virtual discussion titled Coronavirus: Global and Academic Perspectives Tuesday afternoon.

The LSA International Institute hosted a virtual discussion titled Coronavirus: Global and Academic Perspectives Tuesday afternoon. Buy this photo
Dominick Sokotoff/Daily

The LSA International Institute hosted a virtual discussion titled “Coronavirus: Global and Academic Perspectives” Tuesday afternoon. The roundtable was moderated by Joseph Kolars, Michigan Medicine senior associate dean for education and global initiatives.

Preeti Malani, University of Michigan chief health officer and an associate editor at the Journal of American Medicine, discussed the biology of COVID-19 and how people in leadership roles at the University are making decisions during a time of uncertainty.

“Like the earlier SARS outbreak from 2003, it was a novel coronavirus in that it has never been seen in humans before,” Malani said. “It has spread to every corner of the world now; we are seeing our numbers increase each day. It is truly a pandemic.”

COVID-19 is a respiratory infection that broke out in Wuhan, China and spread across the world, making its way into the United States. In response, the University moved classes online, and all students who are able to do so have been encouraged to leave campus.

Malani also explained what is currently known and unknown about how quickly the coronavirus is transmitted.

“The other aspect that we do not fully understand is the transmissibility; we don’t fully understand other coronaviruses in that transmission is mostly from people coughing on you from airborne transmission. But the role of the environment is not clear and the role of people who do not have symptoms is not clear,” Malani said. “With no vaccine and no antivirals that are proven effective, it really does come down to public health measures, this has really become something that has taken over the world.” 

She also noted the unprecedented nature of the virus.

“There is no playbook for this,” Malani said. “That is leading to a sense of unease.” 

Howard Markel, LSA, Medical School and School of Public Health professor, said it is important to take the virus seriously, 

“When you study past epidemics, you are a lot like the Maytag repairman, and everyone ignores you until there is some crisis, and then you are very busy,” Markel said. “Nobody wants to take chances, and I know as a pediatrician I never had a patient or a parent come back to me and say, ‘I want my money back because you said it’s better to be safe than sorry.’ There’s never been a better time in human history to battle a pandemic than today, except for tomorrow.”

Amy Huang, Medical School clinical assistant professor and director of Asia Programs, spoke about the pandemic from a medical and personal perspective. 

“The things that put anxiety and nervousness through the roof are that they have to wear masks, but there aren’t any masks,” Huang said. “Something that amazed me the most was how the local community responded, they utilized mobile phones and used a network to communicate to make announcements and to publish new cases closely and can identify potential exposure, and they can do self-monitoring and self-quarantine.” 

Huang also discussed how life has changed for her family in China. 

“My parents did not even know how to online shop before this outbreak, but now they love it,” Huang said. 

The speakers then took questions from the community members watching the virtual event. 

When asked about how the University’s hospital will be doing their own testing, Malani emphasized the desire to have testing available locally as quickly as possible. 

“The health system will hopefully have testing up and running within two to three weeks,” Malani said. “Our colleagues in Seattle at the University of Washington have done a remarkable job of getting testing up and running and, eventually, I think we will have our own testing on site.” 

One community member compared the measures taken in Michigan such as the recent closing of the University and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s closure of all restaurants and bars to the mitigation efforts in China. Huang pointed to China’s strict regulations.

“There are much stronger measures in place, there are no outside travelers allowed in, and if they go out, they are measured and they are only allowed two trips outside per week per family,” Huang said. 

Markel discussed how long it would take to “flatten the curve,” a term used by health professionals and government officials that refers to a disease spreading at a slower rate so hospitals aren’t as likely to be overwhelmed with cases.

“We don’t know, and that’s what will drive our citizens mad, because people don’t do well not interacting with other people,” Markle said. “And we do know with flu that it had to be for a very long time. The cities that did it best, it was for a matter of two to four months, and that’s why President Trump said yesterday that this may go on until August, and I certainly hope not, but it is a possible worst-case scenario.”

Daily Staff Reporter Sarah Payne can be reached at paynesm@umich.edu