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Berkeley Public Health experts weigh in on COVID-19


Since December 2019, the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) has gripped the world, spreading to over 150 countries, with over 1,447,000 confirmed cases and 91,700 deaths. On March 11, the World Health Organization officially classified COVID-19 as a pandemic.

As health officials across the world race to test for and mitigate the spread of COVID-19, faculty experts at Berkeley Public Health are working to inform the public through numerous media interviews and events, as well as advising the UC Office of the President and UC Berkeley Chancellor on the UC system- and campus-wide response, including public health measures to protect the health and well-being of faculty, staff and more than 41,000 students.

In early February, Berkeley Public Health was the first Bay Area institution to hold an event on the novel coronavirus. Art Reingold, infectious disease expert and professor, spoke with the San Francisco Chronicle’s Erin Allday and the Tang Center’s Dr. Anna Harte on the escalating outbreak. “The situation is evolving rapidly,” said Reingold. “It’s pointing out enormous gaps in the global capacity to prepare for, predict, and respond to such infections. The world has a lot of work to do.”

Reingold has also spoken to various news outlets, such as the New York Times and the BBC, and recently spoke at a Facebook Live event hosted by the Asia Society of Hong Kong with other Berkeley Public Health alumni and faculty, including Nicholas Jewell, a professor of biostatistics who has been modeling the coronavirus outbreak and was recently featured in The New York Times, stressing the “Exponential Importance of Now”.

John Swartzberg, professor emeritus of the UC Berkeley-UCSF Joint Medical Program, has also been encouraging public health measures that could slow the outbreak enough for testing to catch up. Those include simple steps like washing hands and, most importantly, social distancing. UC Berkeley and many institutions around the country have adopted online classes and remote work in line with this advice, and most large events everywhere have been canceled.

The COVID-19 pandemic has also illuminated gaps in the healthcare system. Stephen Shortell, a dean emeritus and health policy and management expert, recently spoke with Berkeley News about how the nation’s vast number of uninsured may facilitate the spread. “We do not know how many of those with the coronavirus are uninsured,” he said, “but having universal health insurance coverage would eliminate financial barriers to testing and treatment.”

Joseph Lewnard, an assistant professor of epidemiology, recently spoke with the Wall Street Journal on how epidemiologists are dealing with the unknown numbers of infected individuals in deciphering just how widespread this outbreak truly is. Either way, as the virus spreads, cities and states, like California, have begun enacting shelter in place directives, urging residents to stay at home to help flatten the curve to help health systems to keep up the outbreak. Lee Riley, a professor of infectious diseases and vaccinology, recently told CalMatters and the New York Times that this might be the best strategy at this point, as public health officials develop permanent solutions.

COVID-19 has also increased fear and xenophobia, which is often associated with infectious disease outbreaks, and provoked racist behaviors. “Certainly, this type of virus can start from any country. If there’s a certain mode of infection from an animal to a human that takes place, it can start anywhere,” said Winston Tseng, a research sociologist and lecturer who teaches a course on Asian American health at Berkeley Public Health, in a recent article on Berkeley News. “But it’s certainly a concern to hear the news that different countries are confirming the ‘yellow peril’ and ‘yellow alert’ prejudices against people from China.”

Fenyong Liu, a professor of infectious diseases, has also commented to the media on the novel coronavirus, social distancing and xenophobia. “We really need to unite together, we’re on the same team, we have the same fight,” Liu recently told The Washington Post. “Openness, transparency and a united attitude is the key because disease can affect everybody.”