COVID-19 peak will not mean end of social distancing, experts say

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UC Berkeley’s School of Public Health, or SPH, hosted a virtual town hall Monday to discuss emerging research driving solutions to the coronavirus pandemic.

The livestreamed discussion was hosted as part of the ongoing virtual campus series, “Berkeley Conversations: COVID-19,” which focuses on highlighting epidemiological, economic and analytical approaches to the pandemic. SPH Dean Michael Lu moderated the discussion, which served as a follow-up to the series’s kickoff event, which surrounded “facts and fears” relating to the disease. Nearly 1,000 people tuned in to watch the live talk between Lu and eight SPH professors who teach in a variety of public health subfields, including epidemiology and biostatistics.

Early in the discussion, biostatistics professor Nicholas Jewell said recent evidence shows California may be at its peak of COVID-19 infections, if not beyond it. He added, however, that a peak then decline in infections does not directly translate to lifting shelter-in-place orders. Jewell noted that it took California several weeks in lockdown to reach the peak, so it is likely that it may take the same amount of time after cases begin to decrease before the state returns to something resembling normalcy

“We can’t think about the peak being the end of shelter in place,” Jewell said during the event. “Maybe, at best, it’s halfway through.”

Community health sciences associate professors Amani Allen and Colette Auerswald discussed the pandemic’s effect on the Bay Area’s most vulnerable communities. Allen advised cities to refine data collection and target resource allocation to better serve communities most affected, which are disproportionately made up of people of color. Auerswald suggested that cities house those experiencing homelessness in hotels for the disease’s duration and possibly thereafter given the chance of a resurgence.

Experts at the town hall agreed widespread testing is needed before social distancing recommendations are loosened.

Infectious diseases and vaccinology professor Eva Harris’ new effort to track infection will provide data on how attempting to remove these restrictions will affect the number of cases in the East Bay. 

The research will track the disease’s prevalence among asymptomatic people in several local communities by following a representative and randomized sample stratified by zip code, according to Harris. Harris said her team will mail 300,000 flyers to East Bay homes so residents can opt in to the study. Those who choose to participate will receive a kit that will help them send in samples to be tested for virus RNA and antibodies

Harris’ team will take samples every few weeks in order to determine the effect that different strategies to loosen social distancing will have on the number of transmissions.

During the event, Lee Riley, an infectious diseases and epidemiology professor, said the state should proceed with caution in lifting shelter-in-place orders because there currently is not sound evidence to prove recovered COVID-19 patients’ immune response is lastingly protective against another possible transmission.

Jewell also acknowledged that loosening shelter-in-place orders will not be simple. He called California’s experience a “different epidemic” from the rest of the country’s and said, consequently, there will not be a “one-size-fits-all” return to a world without social distancing across the country.

“We won’t be able to go from shelter in place to nothing,” said Maya Petersen, an associate professor in biostatistics and epidemiology, during the event. “So, obviously, the transition is going to have to be gradual. We’re going to have to back out of shelter in place into a range of other public health interventions to help us keep this epidemic under control.”

Contact Rachel Barber at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @rachelbarber_.