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Faculty profile: A Q&A with epidemiologist Art Reingold

With more than 40 years of experience in the infectious disease field, specializing in vaccine-preventable diseases, respiratory infections and outbreak detection and response, Art Reingold is probably the most recognizable name at Berkeley Public Health’s Division of Epidemiology. 

Before he arrived at Berkeley, Reingold worked for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for eight years as an epidemiology expert. He received his AB and MD from the University of Chicago. He has taught at UC Berkeley since 1985. 

He recently sat down to talk about his experience and how he ended up in the field of public health.

Berkeley Public Health: How did you get into the field of Public Health? What first piqued your interest?

Art Reingold: I started in medicine intending to become an academic and medical researcher, working in the lab and doing clinical work and teaching. I then spent three years at the CDC in Atlanta in what’s called their Epidemic Intelligence Service program, as a stepping stone toward my academic medical career, believing I would only be there for two years. It opened my eyes to the field of epidemiology and public health and I ended up staying there for eight years. I found something I enjoyed. What appealed to me was the medical detective work part of it — the figuring out “whodunit”: What caused the outbreak, what were the factors and the risk of disease. Also the whole issue of prevention and working with populations rather than patients one at a time. I would say that was the experience that opened my eyes and changed my life.

What brought you to UC Berkeley?

While I was working at the CDC, my now-wife moved to Boston to do more training in medicine. At the time, we discovered that she was pregnant with our first child. Frankly, there was nothing that particularly interested me in Boston and there was nothing particularly interesting to her at that point in Atlanta. So we started looking for opportunities elsewhere. She was able to switch her fellowship from Boston to Stanford. I was able to get a CDC position working with the School of Public Health here [at Berkeley] together with the Alameda County Health Agency, applying epidemiology to health needs in the community. So my first two years here I was still an employee of the U.S. government and the CDC. The intention then was that after two or perhaps three years doing that, we’d be moving back to Atlanta. But we both liked living in the Bay Area. She was offered a good job here as the director of STD control for San Francisco. I successfully competed for a full-time faculty position at the university. When the former dean and chair of our department, Bill Reeves retired, I was selected through an open national search. So I was able to stay. That’s how I ended up remaining here on the faculty starting in 1980.

What is the most important thing you’re working on these days?

For the past 40 years, I’ve been working on the prevention and control of infectious diseases. That’s still, I would say, the most important part of what I do today. With COVID-19, I’ve been squarely in the middle of that. I basically have a second full-time job working on COVID, in addition to all the things I was doing before. At the research end of things, I would say it’s continuing to work on the prevention and control of vaccine-preventable diseases, including COVID-19. The other thing I would say, however, if any part of my career has had an impact, [it] has been through the extraordinary students I’ve had the chance to work with and mentor. They’ve gone on to do incredible things. One of my colleagues, Maya Peterson, who happens to be one of my students, said she’s going to have T-shirts or hats made that say, “Yes, I too, was Art Reingold’s student.” They’re not in production yet. But the fact is, I’ve been blessed with extraordinary doctoral students, undergraduates, and postdocs, and many of them have gone on to truly remarkable careers.

As Chair of California’s coronavirus vaccine workgroup, what does your role entail?

We call it the Western states working group. The group includes Oregon, Washington, and Nevada [along with California]. I chair the working group but we have representatives from the four states, some extraordinary people from Stanford, UCLA, UC San Diego, and partner states. We report to the governors of the four states. We look at the COVID vaccines as they’re approved by FDA and CDC to see if we have anything to add. We provide advice to our health departments and governors about how they should be used. We’d like to think that our additional review provides some measure of additional comfort and reassurance for people in our states that vaccines are safe and effective.

You also worked on a couple organizing committees related to the pandemic. What was that like?

Almost 20 years ago, I was honored to be elected a member of the National Academy of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine. One of their main jobs is to provide independent scientific advice to the federal government. These experts are gathered from around the world. In the first group (the NASEM Committee on Equitable Allocation of Vaccines for the Novel Coronavirus), we looked at the possibility of a limited number of doses of vaccine—and who should get priority for those doses—and set up a framework for that. In the other workshop ​​(the NASEM Workshop on Airborne Transmission of SARS-CoV-2 2020), we assembled all of the evidence relating to whether the COVID-19 virus transmitted via small particles in the air, what we call aerosols. There was initially a feeling among many people that it wasn’t. But I think, using the evidence we assembled, made a convincing case that the virus is transmitted through small particles, informing prevention and control efforts. So I think that the results of that workshop, like the committee on the equitable allocation of COVID vaccines, certainly have been looked through and have had an impact. Of course, in the work of many people, I played a modest role but I learned a lot.

How do you think UC Berkeley is doing with regards to COVID-19?

Well, it’s a complicated topic. We know from last academic year that there were large outbreaks of COVID-19 on many campuses, some with thousands of cases. So we’re aware of the risks. But now, virtually everyone on the campus, including faculty, students, and staff, will be vaccinated. We think that with this huge measure of safety, we can get people back to campus and conduct in-person education safely. I think we all recognize that it’s going to depend on a certain amount of human behavior among students, faculty, and staff. I also know that not everyone is happy with these arrangements. Certainly, some faculty and staff members are worried about being in a classroom with students. Many people have children at home or are caring for elderly relatives. The campus is trying to be as supportive and helpful as possible to people who feel they have higher levels of protection, but we’re not going to achieve perfection. We all live in the community—shopping, traveling, doing other things in Berkeley, Oakland, and San Francisco. The virus is out there. We will have infections. We already have infections. So we need to be able to handle those and limit the spread, keep people safe, and try to keep the campus open for in-person work and instruction. We’re doing our very best to make campus safe. The idea that we’d have yet another year doing everything via Zoom and not having people on campus, the feeling was that would be a worse set of arrangements educationally. We’re as well-positioned as any university to keep everyone safe. So that’s the working assumption. Fingers crossed that’s how it turns out.

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