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Public Health Professor Plays Key Role as Connecticut Recovers from Pandemic

June 08, 2020

To Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont, Yale School of Public Health Professor Albert Ko is “our Dr. Fauci.”

Much like the actual Dr. Tony Fauci, director of National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and a familiar national presence throughout the pandemic, Ko takes the ongoing fight against COVID-19 extremely seriously. Though cases are in decline since rates of disease peaked in late April, and the state is seeing a decrease of hospitalizations and deaths, to Ko, the fight has just begun.

“There is a lot of hard work yet to be done,” said Ko, MD, chair of the Department of Epidemiology of Microbial Diseases at YSPH. “We have not dealt with something like this in modern times. The science is catching up and the road ahead is not perfectly clear.”

Ko has been at the center of the effort to navigate the weeks ahead and to protect Connecticut’s citizens and economy against the effects of the pandemic. Along with former PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi, SOM ’80, Ko was tapped by Gov. Lamont to lead the Reopen Connecticut Advisory Group on April 12. That group, after several weeks of nearly constant effort, was formally disbanded on May 20 as the state began its next phase of reopening following the “Stay Safe, Stay Home” restrictions in place since March to halt the spread of COVID-19.

Ko worked hand-in-hand with Nooyi and others on a series of recommendations to the state to address the myriad issues surrounding public health and the state’s economy.

“That requires a careful calibration of both strong public health interventions and mitigating the harmful impact this shutdown has had for the state,” Ko said. The group, consisting, in addition to Ko and Nooyi, of a health committee, economic and business sector committee, an education committee, and a community committee, met regularly to provide input to the governor, which culminated in the release of a report to the public on May 26 that provided a roadmap to reopening the state in the weeks and months ahead. Ko and Nooyi were also regular participants in the Governor’s daily briefings on COVID-19 with Connecticut media.

Ko’s public health recommendations concerned primarily increased testing, the initiation of contact tracing, and the support of people through isolation, particularly vulnerable citizens. “The next several months are going to be critical to getting those programs up so we can keep our populations safe as we reopen and also to prevent or mitigate the risk of a resurgence.”

Some public health priorities going forward, according to the report, are large-scale testing, particularly in cities; the continued practice of social distancing and the wearing of face masks in public; testing targeting asymptomatic populations; establishing capacity for contact tracing; and enhanced protection of populations more likely to be seriously or fatally ill with COVID-19.

While many are anxious to restart the state economy without further delay, Ko and the advisory group recommended against speed in reopening, in order to best avoid a resurgence of COVID-19. This was founded in analysis provided to the group by YSPH Associate Professor Forrest Crawford, PhD, who utilized state data to create projections for the trajectory of the virus. He created scenarios for “fast” and “slow” reopenings. The consequences of a fast reopening, in terms of additional infections and deaths, were ominous.

“His models and projections were an important step that was taken in terms of guiding how a quick reopening would have potential deleterious effects, and that is why we were promoting this slow, phased opening,” Ko said.

The governor saw eye-to-eye with the advisory group on such a cautious, evidence-based strategy. “Even before the advisory group was convened, much of the Governor’s policies have been data-driven, and based on strong scientific and public health evidence,” Ko said.

Still, reopening in the economy is “truly important,” said Ko. “We are concerned about the unemployment, particularly about the impact this is having on our underserved communities that have been hit hardest by the direct effects of the COVID response.”

Ko said that the group’s work was challenging, particularly recommending policies and decisions as the state moved forward into the uncharted territory created by the pandemic, and balancing the risk of COVID-19 resurgence with unemployment and the deleterious effects of keeping schools and business closed.

But Ko found it rewarding to work with Nooyi and other highly dedicated colleagues on the advisory group, as well as state officials and the governor, on a common, united goal of protecting Connecticut’s communities during this health emergency.

Though the advisory group has officially disbanded, going forward, Ko and Nooyi will continue to advise the governor, and will continue to represent Connecticut on a seven-state coalition to coordinate a broader regional strategy for reopening the economy.

Dean Sten Vermund applauded Ko’s work with the state, and all of the volunteer work that the school has done to promote better health outcomes during the pandemic.

“The Yale School of Public Health sought every opportunity to help our colleagues and constituents in the university, city, state, and our partners in Africa, Asia, and South America,” Vermund said. “We have engaged a wide array of community groups, schools, arts organizations, and service providers in Connecticut. Dr. Ko’s extraordinary work is a particularly fine example of the ethos of service that we practice and that we strive to teach to our students.”

In addition to Ko and Nooyi, other Yale members of the advisory group were Harlan Krumholz, MD, SM, Harold H. Hines, Jr. Professor of Medicine and Professor in the Institute for Social and Policy Studies, of Investigative Medicine and of Public Health; Marcella Nunez-Smith, MD, MHS, Associate Professor of Medicine and of Epidemiology; and Carrie Redlich, MD, MPH, Professor of Medicine.

With foresight worthy of his federal counterpart, Ko looked ahead to other concerns that will impact the state heading into the summer and fall. Keeping other widespread seasonal illnesses at bay, says Ko, is necessary to avoid overwhelming the state’s health system if there is a resurgence of COVID-19. “Each year, our health system goes into surge crisis because of seasonal influenza,” Ko said. “Universal [influenza] immunization is going to be another key step as we go into the fall.”

Jeanna Lucci-Canapari

Submitted by Sayuri Gavaskar on June 08, 2020