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Kent State Faculty At The Forefront Of Infectious Disease Epidemiology

June 17, 2020
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Learn about Dr. Smith and read highlights from her recent webinar. She addresses COVID-19, infectious diseases and how we all can play a role in determining our collective future during the pandemic.

Before joining the Kent State faculty in 2013, this native Ohioan earned her B.S. in Biology from Yale University and her PhD in Microbiology from the University of Toledo. Following post-doctoral work in Molecular Epidemiology at the University of Michigan, she spent nine years at the University of Iowa, where she directed the College’s Center for Emerging Infectious Diseases.

Dr. Smith’s research generally focuses on zoonotic infections, which are transferred between animals and humans. She was the first to identify livestock-associated strains of methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) in the United States, and she pioneered the investigation of this organism in this country.

In addition to teaching and writing several books and a blog focused on etiology, Dr. Smith is an authority often cited in the news media. The New York Times has profiled her work, and she was recently quoted in Detroit Free Press and Washington Post articles addressing COVID-19.

HIGHLIGHTS FROM DR. SMITH’S WEBINAR ON COVID-19

Moderator Eric Mansfield, from Kent State’s Office of Media Relations, asked some preliminary questions, and then fielded several more that came in via Facebook.

At the beginning of the webinar, Dr. Smith defined epidemiology as “the study of diseases in populations, looking at the population as a whole, rather than each individual. Infectious disease epidemiology looks at how pathogens spread through populations.”

Most of her work in the last 15 years has focused on Staphylococcus aureus and methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA). She noted that the same testing used for staph/MRSA can be used for the coronavirus, as we look at how it spreads in populations, what role surfaces (door knobs, grocery shelves, etc.) play in the spread, and whether it can be transmitted from animals to people or vice versa.

What is COVID-19 and why is it so dangerous?

“COVID-19 is the disease caused by the new coronavirus. The virus itself is named SARS Coronavirus 2.”

Symptoms include those similar to flu. If the virus moves into your lungs, Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome (ARDS) can, if severe and persistent enough, stop your breathing. ARDS is the reason that people in intensive care may need oxygen and ventilators. Some people might experience gastrointestinal symptoms like those similar to food poisoning. It seems that in up to 80 percent of people, symptoms are very mild. In the other 20 percent, they can develop into pneumonia and other serious issues.

Why were students sent home from college campuses?

“The goal was to send the students home before there was an outbreak on campus, in order to prevent the spread.”

If one person on campus gets the virus, it can spread very quickly. When people are living together, going to classes where they share surfaces, meeting in cafeterias and lecture halls, that’s a good way for the virus to spread. Even mild or asymptomatic infections could transmit the virus in the community, and students could carry the virus home and spread it there.

How important is social distancing, really?

“We can measure how many people each infected individual will transmit the virus to. That’s called the basic reproductive number of a virus. If you get the number below one, the epidemic fizzles out, because infectious people aren’t transmitting the virus to other people.”

So far, the best data that social distancing is working is out of Washington state, which was one of the earliest places to be hit. Washington started social distancing about the same time that Ohio did, but they already had a much higher number of cases. Early in the epidemic, Washington’s basic reproductive number was about 3.5, so each infected person was transmitting the virus to three or four others. And now, it’s right about at one. That change is due, essentially, to social distancing mechanisms.

How effective are homemade masks?

“Masks are used to protect others from you, not to protect you from anybody else.”

Many infections are contracted when infectious people are pre-symptomatic: They’ve been infected, the virus is incubating in their bodies, and they can spread it for about two days before they develop symptoms. But they don’t know they’ve been infected, they’re not feeling sick, and they’re out in the world, maybe going to the grocery store.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that we wear some type of mask, which keeps droplets generated from breathing and speaking from spreading too far beyond it. Different masks are made of different materials, with varying layers of cloth. Unlike N95 masks, homemade masks don’t adhere tightly to your face, so you could still be spreading some virus, but the mask is intended to contain it.

The mask is most effective when you use it correctly. Be careful not to infect yourself by getting the virus on your mask, or by touching it after you’ve touched things that may be contaminated. Make sure to put your mask on correctly, using handles or ties, and then take it off the same way. Don’t touch the front of it, and do wash it as soon as you get home.

Masks are not a replacement for social distancing practices. Since masks protect other people, continue distancing to protect yourself.

There’s so much information out there. How do we know what’s misinformation, rumor or conspiracy, and what’s really the truth?

“The best person I recommend is Helen Branswell, who writes for STAT News out of Boston.”

Ms. Branswell has focused her whole beat on infectious disease; she’s covered it for almost 20 years. Having been in Toronto during the 2003 SARS outbreak, she is one of the few journalists who has covered coronavirus outbreaks before. She is fantastic, and STAT has been really good at covering this.

Dr. Smith also recommended the websites of the World Health Organization, the CDC and Kent State University.

What can you say to Kent State students who are worried about when this will end, and who are worried that maybe their friends or families are going to get sick?

“We’re all in the same boat. We can all contribute to flattening the curve.”

We’re all concerned about this. Stay inside, stay away from other people as much as possible, only go out when you really need supplies. Do that the best that you can. Know that our front-line healthcare workers are doing the best that they can, as well, and we all have to hope for the best.

BE PART OF THE SOLUTION IN THE KENT STATE ONLINE MPH PROGRAM.

If your concern moves you to action, consider earning your Master of Public Health (MPH) degree from Kent State’s CEPH-accredited online program. Gain the skills necessary to make decisions, plans and policy aimed at improving healthcare in local, national and global communities.

Questions? Let’s Connect.