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Weekly lecture series explores epidemiology of COVID-19, outlines prevention measures

| Wednesday, November 4, 2020

In this week’s edition of the “Consider This!” webinar series, Heidi Beidinger-Burnett and Mary Ann McDowell, both faculty in the University’s Eck Institute for Global Health, discussed the epidemiology of COVID-19. The hosts were joined by Alex Perkins, associate professor in the department of biological sciences, and Jenna Coalson, assistant professor of the practice in global health.

In preparation for the fifth installment of the lecture series, Perkins and Coalson released short tutorials. These segments helped to further contextualize epidemiological modeling.

Officials may have missed out on a crucial opportunity to manage the virus in February, Perkins noted in a 13-minute video. Using epidemiological modeling, he reasoned COVID-19 infections may have been “substantially underestimated” during the initial stages of the virus.

Coalson dedicated her preview tutorial to explaining the implications of a virus’ “reproductive number.“ Coalson defined this value as the “average number of individuals directly infected by one infectious case through the total infectious period.” She pointed out the importance of reducing the COVID-19 reproductive number below one in order to slow the spread.

The hosts opened the conversation candidly, delving into the backgrounds of the week’s guests. Although Perkins’s research focuses on mosquito-borne diseases, he said he explores “predictive understanding of where and when these diseases occur … and curtailing their burden.”

In addition to five years of epidemiological consulting, Coalson has experience in malaria epidemiology research in Malawi and Ghana.

The conversation shifted focus to herd immunity and The Great Barrington Declaration. The Declaration shows a divergence from prevailing COVID-19 policies and states that “as immunity builds in the population, the risk of infection to all — including the vulnerable — falls.”

Both Coalson and Perkins pushed back against some of the Declaration’s claims, reminding viewers that not enough is known about the virus to corroborate.

Coalson acknowledged the lower risks the virus poses to younger populations. Still, she noted that the behavior of young people may inevitably lead to a higher spread of COVID-19.

“There are going to be these pockets of high spread of the disease,” Coalson said.

Coalson said she has admiration for the efforts of Notre Dame students. She admitted that, in a dense contact network, it can easily become much more of a problem.

“We owe so much to our students for it not being worse than it was,” she said.

Coalson voiced concerns about managing the virus as temperatures continue to drop. Beidinger responded by asking Coalson to share tips for stopping the spread of the virus during the onset of colder months and the holiday season. Coalson recommended developing a “pod“ that would remind people to limit their social interactions to a defined number of people.

Perkins pointed out that the spread of the virus is affected by many of the decisions that individuals control. He suggested that people consider doing things that allow them to stay socially distant.

“It’s going to the grocery store or ordering them to your house. It’s going out to dinner or eating in,” Perkins said.

Burnett and McDowell closed the lecture in tandem. Reciting their weekly outro, they reminded viewers to consider this: “The more you know, the more good you can do, be informed and act on accurate information, and share reliable information.”

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