Minutes after Cornell officially announced that classes would go virtual after spring break, professors dissected the severity of the COVID-19 epidemic while offering steps that students and travelers could take to prevent further infections.
Hosted by the Kidney Disease Screening and Awareness Program — a student-run organization that provides programs to underserved communities about health education — the Tuesday afternoon panel included several of Cornell’s most prominent figures in virology, including microbiology and immunology professors Gary Whittaker, Colin Parrish, Cynthia Leifer and John Parker.
KDSAP President Andrew Rosenblatt ’20 said that since planning the event in February, the epidemic has quickly morphed into something more urgent.
“You can sense the tension on campus. I’m glad that this came at such an opportune time to have people have their questions answered,” Rosenblatt said.
At the panel, Parrish contrasted the rise of COVID-19 with past contagions, saying that while the current situation is not a pandemic, it is on the brink of becoming one. Even so, the sustained spread of the novel coronavirus has underscored the world’s inexperience in dealing with a global outbreak, Parrish said.
“We are making up the control measures as we go along. We need to be able to plan ahead, and hopefully be anticipating the next outbreak,” Parrish said.
Initially, U.S. officials, both locally and on the federal level, pursued a strategy of containment — isolating those suspected of being infected so that the virus would eventually die out, much like SARS, another coronavirus strain, did in 2003.
But as the number of cases has grown near-exponentially, that approach has shifted to one of mitigation — an acknowledgment of the fact that identifying and containing each new infected individual has become virtually impossible.
Case in point, New York has struggled to fight the spread of COVID-19 since the state’s first case was confirmed last Sunday on March 1. In just four days, the number of cases in the state quadrupled — from just 44 on Friday to afternoon to 173 as of Tuesday night, prompting Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D-N.Y.) to declare a state of emergency.
Several communities have been severely exposed, with the national guard being deployed to New Rochelle, a Westchester city of nearly 80,000 that has reported over 100 cases.
According to Leifer, COVID-19’s unusually long incubation period — the time between when an individual is infected and becomes symptomatic — has complicated already difficult containment efforts.
“The longer the interval, the easier it is to stop transmission early,” Leifer said. “If the interval is short, new people get infected before the person knows they are infected and the disease spreads more.”
The professors also highlighted the virus’ reproduction number, the number of cases, on average, an infected person will transmit while carrying the virus. For example, seasonal influenza has a reproduction number of about two or three, while coronavirus is estimated to be in a similar range, according to early measures.
Parker cautioned that this number, commonly abbreviated R0, is highly dependent on one’s environment. For example, people living in densely populated areas could be more at risk, as well as people who are older.
But, according to Leifer, one of the greatest risks posed by the virus lies in the healthcare system’s inability to keep pace with a rapidly growing caseload. In this way, even if efforts to completely contain COVID-19 are likely to fail, simply slowing the disease’s spread could ensure that sick patients are able to get the care they need.
Such efforts around the globe have included New York creating a containment zone surrounding hard-hit New Rochelle, scores of universities nationwide switching to online classes and Italy taking the unprecedented step of expanding a lockdown to the entire country.
“When medical personnel are infected, there are fewer people who can treat the patients, and when more patients are hospitalized, there are fewer beds for new infected patients and patients with other medical needs,” Leifer said. “That’s why we are trying to delay and prolong the spread as much as possible … [and] why students at Cornell are not coming back to campus after spring break.”
According to Parker, the number of serious cases is also a chief cause of concern, particularly when compared to that of the standard flu. For instance, a report from the Chinese Center for Disease Control found that while 81 percent of the 44,415 cases analyzed could be classified as mild, the remaining 19 percent were severe or critical — often requiring ventilation or hospitalization in the ICU.
“When that number of people are going to emergency care, then other patients will not receive treatment,” Parker said.
Another major challenge of COVID-19 is related to its spread through susceptible populations, Leifer said. Because it is completely novel, no one has built up natural immunity to the virus, meaning it can spread virtually unabated.
One way the virus can be spread is through “droplet spread,” a mode of transmission in which diseases spread through droplets unleashed by coughs and sneezes. One way of combating this type of transmission is by paying attention to the surfaces you touch; and while most viruses remain on surfaces for over a day, COVID-19 is an “unstable” virus that is much easier to disinfect, according to Whittaker.
The final question of the evening centered around travel for students, many of whom will inevitably pass through current “hotspots,” such as Westchester County and Washington State.
On this point, Parker once again stressed the importance of people watching what they touch, warning that “you touch your face more when you are stressed.” Parrish agreed, highlighting that even though it would be a hard habit to break, just reducing it by some amount could make a difference.
Kopal Jha ‘21, a human development major, attended the panel in the hopes of learning more about the virus — but was struck more by just how susceptible we are to COVID-19 and its wide-reaching effects on everything from healthcare to travel.
“People have to realize it’s not about whether you get infected, it’s about who you can transmit it to when you come home,” Jha said.