MCPHS Public Health Professor Lindsay Tallon on where we find ourselves in the Coronavirus Pandemic
The sudden and alarming spread of COVID-19 has raised a multitude of questions: Why has this virus spread so much more quickly than past ones? Has the U.S. responded properly? Where do we find reliable information?
As the crisis unfolds, it's vital to hear from public health experts. We spoke with Dr. Lindsay Tallon, Assistant Professor of Public Health and Assistant Director of the Master of Public Health Program at MCPHS. Before joining the University, Tallon worked as Program Manger and Epidemiologist for the Massachusetts Department of Public Health and has years of experience working in emergency preparedness.
So what is it that makes COVID-19 so infectious: our response or something about the virus itself?
Probably both, Tallon says. As far as responding to the outbreak, she believes that "the critical error has been the lack of testing. We have no idea how many people really have it in the United States, so it was allowed to spread without any contact tracing, except for the most obvious cases. The numbers were seeing right now—it could be tenfold or more higher."
She's also been wary of the messaging from the top levels of government. "We have a class we teach on public messaging, and we did a lot of that in [my time in] emergency preparedness. One of the biggest things you need to do is be consistent in your messaging. We have a lot of inconsistency: saying we have a lot of tests for everyone, and then they're not actually available."
She says she has not seen the necessary consistency in federal-level messaging, but that some places in the U.S. are doing a better job—like the swift and decisive actions taken in Massachusetts. But the internet is a dangerous place for misinformation, Dr. Tallon stresses. "I'm seeing so much on Facebook and other social media outlets where people are spreading some crazy ideas. Gargling with hot water, using chloroquine from your fish tank—of course people shouldn't be doing that. Use trusted sources. Go to the CDC, journals, those kinds of things."
Dr. Tallon also emphasizes the importance of giving the public positive steps to take to help. To that end, she's been happy with the CDC's clarity and publicity in telling people to stay home, wash their hands, and take this seriously. So it's been a mixed bag in terms of response efforts in the United States.
Of course, some elements of the current pandemic have been a bit more beyond our control. Tallon points to a Lancet article that shows how COVID-19 differs from, say, the SARS outbreak in 2003:
First, the current outbreak originated in a heavily populated area of over 11 million people that is a major travel center in China. That lead to a quick and massive initial spread. At the same time, COVID-19 has a wide clinical spectrum, or range of symptoms patients might exhibit. That makes it difficult to know who is ill. So, Tallon says, even if we had more widespread surveillance and testing available, we'd still likely miss many cases. This all differs from what happened with SARS, where patients had to be quite ill for viral shedding and transmission to occur. It was easier to identify and isolate those infected; with COVID-19, pre-symptomatic transmission is thought to occur, making isolation, contact tracing, and temperature screening much less effective.
In short, Dr. Tallon notes, COVID-19 "spreads in a more unpredictable way. People are asymptomatic for a while but are still spreading the virus. And this, she believes, makes it crucial for people to get good information and act accordingly.
As for putting her own expertise to work, Dr. Tallon and others at MCPHS have been part of an academic health collaborative with the Massachusetts Department of Public Health.
"We've been on calls with them trying to figure out ways we can use the schools and programs of public health. We're on the calls along with Harvard, BU, Tufts, UMass—everywhere that has a school or program of public health," Tallon says. "We're trying to figure out ways we can use our expertise, recruit volunteers, because we have students who have expertise, plug into what local health departments or hospitals need."
She said that each school in the collaborative identifies areas of expertise where they can help most. MCPHS is very good at training, she says. "We've developed workforce training in the past, and we have a good online presence in our program. And there are a lot of us who have worked in public health....we have that expertise in planning and coordination within public health."
And advice to the rest of us? Dr. Tallon urges the public to be aware that the COVID-19 virus could actually live on hard surfaces for much longer than many believe. The SARS virus, for instance, could survive on surfaces for up to nine days. So disinfect often. And keep those hands clean. "Hand sanitizer doesn't always work very well on these types of viruses. It's really not the best line of defense," she says. "Soap and water is the first line of defense."
Interested in pursuing a career in Public Health? Learn more about Public Health at MCPHS.