The Arizona Daily Star Opinion Page isn’t just a print-media entity. In the last two years, we’ve branched out into the podcasting world with our as-weekly-as-we-can-be show, The Point Being.
Usually, the show is a political roundtable featuring our Opinion editor Sarah Garrecht Gassen, cartoonist David Fitzsimmons and writer Edward Celaya.
In the wake of the COVID-19 outbreak, this week’s episode featured our special guest, Dr. Michele Manos, a virologist and epidemiologist.
She holds degrees from the University of Arizona and Johns Hopkins School of Hygiene and Public Health. Because of the importance and timeliness of the topic, we are sharing an excerpt of our conversation for those who might not have access to our podcast.
Please note that answers have been edited for clarity and space. To hear our entire conversation, visit this link or subscribe to The Point Being on Apple Podcasts.
Question: What has been our largest failure in handling this epidemic?
Manos: One of our increasing number of failures here is the failure to communicate effectively.
Typically, in a situation where we needed to educate about something new, we’d have a little bit of time.
We’d be able to think through all of the theories of behavior change and knowledge and attitude and behavior, and we think it through, and we’d be able to go out and test various approaches, et cetera.
And that doesn’t work in a crisis. I think we don’t have a critical mass of people thinking through these things. Let’s take the spring break thing (thousands of young people flocking to beaches on vacation). What is it that we needed to communicate to that group?
And quite honestly, and we don’t know the answer to that question, I don’t know the answer to that question.
What could we have said to those students that would have made a difference?
And it may be nothing, but if we don’t start thinking about who our targets are and looking at where we’re failing already, we won’t be able to flatten the curve because people won’t really be listening.
Q: What does it mean to “flatten the curve?”
Manos: What flattening the curve means is slowing down the accumulation of cases. Doing enough distancing and containment and other kinds of things that we’re talking about to slow the spread of the virus.
It’s not stopping the virus, but it’s slowing the spread of the virus. Let’s say that we’re interacting less, so that now we only have 100 new cases a day. Cases, meaning say people presenting who are sick and who need care.
Done right, we go from having 100 a day to having 50 a day.
That’s a really big difference, right? That’s 50 less people who will be using services in the medical system or in a hospital.
So flattening the curve means slowing the virus down, but the practical implications of flattening the curve really have to do with the capacity of our healthcare system.
And that’s, that’s the most important thing right now. And so we are flattening the curve. It just means we’re slowing down the spread. And in theory, that means that the epidemic might go on longer. But all of that is projection.
Q: Will the virus stop spreading, or disappear in the Arizona summer heat?
Manos: From exposure outside on a table or elsewhere, it could get inactivated … in the heat.
But just think through that, what if you’re still all hanging out together, breathing on each other? So it doesn’t really help there.
But there’s another reason with the seasonality, and that is we think about the cold and flu season, which happens in the colder months, right?
The way we might consider this is people are already more prone to getting any type of an infection because they’ve got a cold or they’re experiencing the flu or whatever that might be, and so they just might be more susceptible both to infection and to having a more severe outcome from getting infected in that season.
But again, that’s conjecture. You know, we won’t know until we know.
Q: What happened with testing at a large scale for the virus? Is it important at this stage?
Manos: There is a lot of focus about “please write to the governor or pressure these people, et cetera, et cetera.” I am a diagnostic test developer myself. Diagnostic tests are very, very important. But right now, that’s not up at the top of the list of emergencies and I just want to make that clear.
If you want to have an impact and request things and be active right now, the No. 1 thing you should be talking about is personal protective gear (PPE) and medical and hospital supplies. That is what we need more than anything right now.
All the testing in the world is not going to help us, with what we will be facing in our hospitals and what we are already facing in our health-care system. I just need to get that out there.
Q: Can we turn the tide on COVID-19, or is it too late?
Manos: It’s not, it’s not too late. It’s never too late.
I think we need to create a task force.
I want to get some good minds together.
Some people who understand public health communication, journalists who understand communication, others who understand behavior modification and start looking at this and also start watching what people are doing.
Part of managing this properly is to be going out and observing. Seeing people congregating in front of a truck in front of a food shop.
We need to think through communicating, but we have to constantly be going out and evaluating our effectiveness.
And seeing where the leakage is in understanding and behavior and then constantly fine tune our communications. That’s the only way that something like this will work.
Edward Celaya is an opinion writer with the Arizona Daily Star, where he started his career in 2019. He is a graduate of the University of Arizona and Pima Community College, where he worked for both the Daily Wildcat and Aztec Press, respectively, as an editor.
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