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Yale Leaders Talk About COVID-19: School of Public Health Dean Sten Vermund

March 26, 2020

This interview is part of a running series.

How is the Yale School of Public Health (YSPH) responding to this crisis?

The volunteer energy and public health spirit emerging from our community is inspiring.

Students, staff and faculty are working a New Haven COVID-19 telephone bank for YaleHealth, conducting contact tracing with training from the Connecticut Department of Public Health and assisting the United Way of Greater New Haven with social services support. Two of our students, Emily Peterson and Jeannette Jiang, are working with Professor Robert Heimer to provide twice weekly COVID-19 updates with a focus on Connecticut. Our faculty scientists have participated in many interviews with local, national and international media, conveying important public health messages and making sure the public is presented with the latest and most reliable science-based information.

Assistant Professor Gregg Gonsalves spearheaded and, with YSPH and Yale Law School colleagues, drafted an open letter to Vice President Mike Pence urging that the human rights of vulnerable populations such as the elderly, health care workers, prisoners and immigrants be protected during this pandemic. The letter was signed by more than 800 public health and legal experts and organizations. Professor Howie Forman and colleagues framed other urgent issues in a Health Affairs blog that was co-signed by nearly 1,200 people and informed lawmakers drafting important virus-related federal legislation. Post-doc Chad Wells, Professor Alison Galvani and other collaborators from the Yale’s Center for Infectious Disease Modeling and Analysis published a paper that assessed the impact of travel restrictions on SARS-CoV-2 spread.

To help keep New Haven and the Yale community informed, last week we sponsored a 90-minute virtual town hall featuring eight Yale and New Haven experts who offered timely and insightful analysis about what is happening and what people need to do to protect themselves and their families. I welcome you to watch it here. This crisis is impacting us all and I am incredibly proud that the Yale School of Public Health and our greater New Haven community are joining together to keep people informed and supported during this extremely challenging time.

As an epidemiologist, what do you see in the weeks and months ahead here at Yale, New Haven and beyond as this pandemic unfolds?

It is likely that we will see at least 6 to 12 weeks of intense COVID-19-related activities, including social distancing. This will have a profound impact on local small businesses and there will be a parallel economic crisis that will match what we are experiencing in public health. The epidemic’s curve is still rising dramatically, with the number of reported deaths in the U.S. doubling every four days. We have not reached a peak yet. I think that Yale has done a very good job of responding quickly and decisively. This will make a big difference in the outcome in our university community. There will be teaching and learning challenges in the weeks ahead, however, and we’ll all need to work together to succeed in our educational and research missions. The city of New Haven is facing its own daunting challenges, with small business employees and owners, manufacturing employees, travel/tourism sectors, providers of services, and the self-employed all struggling. Already, we have a food crisis for the food- and shelter-insecure. We must focus on the immediate needs of our greater New Haven community. I am therefore very glad that President Salovey is exploring new ways for the Yale community to help right away.

Why is social distancing and preventing large gathering so important right now for everyone at Yale, and elsewhere?

Influenza is a highly infectious disease, and the coronavirus is similar. However, COVID-19 is 10 times more lethal, so we must try to flatten the epidemic curve to make the added health burden realistic to manage. Whether we can snuff out this disease in humans by limiting transmission, now in its first season, is not yet known. Seeing tourists crowded together on the beaches in South Florida and in ski lodges in California is disheartening. Those are perfect scenarios for allowing the virus to spread and be transported to distant communities. Some people, sadly, are not taking this as seriously as they need to in order to protect themselves and the people that they are close to. Yale’s decision to initiate virtual education for the rest of the semester was absolutely the right call. We have never asked people to separate socially in this way, so it is not easy. The disciplined limitation of social mixing, alongside excellent personal and “doorknob” hygiene for the next 8 to 12 weeks (this timeframe is my guess), is vital if we are to reduce the serious consequences associated with this disease.

In the research realm, we are constantly striving toward new discoveries in virology, immunology and treatment. Our scientists are creating important public health forecasting models, interventions and policies designed to improve and protect community health. While most labs are shut, our folks are using the time to catch up on manuscripts, grants and research that can be performed outside of a lab. Much public health research can be conducted remotely, and we hope this continues unabated. YSPH is committed to maintaining the coherence of our teaching and research missions, even as we increase our public health service efforts to support our Yale and New Haven communities.

Submitted by Robert Forman on March 26, 2020