VDH: Our Best Defense Is Preparation
In the United States, we first learned about coronavirus by watching its transmission from afar. Virginia State Epidemiologist, Dr. Lilian Peake, says community preparation for the outbreak is the most important thing we can do right now. WHRV’s Gina Gambony spoke with Dr. Peake Friday. Listen to their conversation, and find a full transcript below.
Gina Gambony: So to start, Dr. Peake, can you explain what it means to be an epidemiologist?
Lilian Peake: Sure. So epidemiologists are scientists that study the characteristics of a disease. So we track diseases and then we try to understand risks associated with them, people that get those diseases, and that helps us better understand how to put controls in place to prevent diseases from spreading, and to get information out to people so that they know how to protect themselves against different diseases. And then also out to health care professionals so they understand what the disease is like, what they can expect, what people may have the disease so they can hone in their diagnostic skills. So, we’re really the scientists about understanding how diseases affect people.
Gina Gambony: And with the situation right now, you're dealing with a disease that hasn't had a lot of study, that's brand new. So that's a unique challenge, I expect.
Lilian Peake: It is, this is a new virus, it is causing a new disease. And so we started tracking it when we first learned about it really late December, and started looking at it very carefully in January. We've been reading about all of the experiences with other countries and this virus are looking carefully at what happened in China and Singapore and South Korea. Now in Italy and the United Kingdom. We're tracking to see like, how is it affecting other people in other countries and that way, we can apply that to what we might expect here in the United States. It's also a viral disease similar to others. We had SARS, SARS was a similar virus that circulated back in 2002, 2003. We compare this virus to other diseases so that we can really get a sense of what we might expect.
Gina Gambony: And all of us who are not epidemiologists, we're also watching these things happen with less understanding, things that are happening in Italy, in New York, and previously in China. And I think the main question a lot of people have is, how do we avoid the worst of this. And we do have people who send us questions here at WHRV. A listener did ask us to find out if it is safe to have a contractor come to your home to do work right now, how would you answer that?
Lilian Peake: So we do know that viruses spread person to person, coming into contact, close contact with somebody is really how it's spreads. And so that's why the recommendation is to try to stay away from others when you are sick, because if you have the virus, you could spread it to somebody else. And then also, just to practice what’s called social distancing. keeping people further apart. That way, it's harder to spread the virus. So if we do that, it is going to slow down the transmission. It's not going to completely eliminate the situation, we will see more cases, we will see outbreaks, we're already seeing that in the United States. But if we can slow down the transmission, then that will be much less impact on our health care systems and we'll be better able to manage this outbreak. So you can practice social distancing, you know, even with a contractor coming into your house, if you're staying six feet away, you're doing routine cleaning. You can still have somebody come in and do that, just keep in mind how you do it in a safe way.
Gina Gambony: I know a lot of decisions are being made right now based on modeling. And the models have been being created as we go along, since this is a new a new virus. I have seen a model from the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation or IHME. Is this a legitimate source of information and have you seen this?
Lilian Peake: I'm not familiar with that specific model. But what we are doing is, is not just following models, we're looking at what happened in other countries. We have the full epidemic curve, which tracks the disease in China, we have that in Europe. We have that now in places in the United States. So, what we're doing is looking at what happened in other countries and the modeling is just to say, if we apply the same math, if you will, and the same types of interventions to our populations, what we might expect.
We are looking at different models, but they're not, you know, it's not a crystal ball. We have to continue to track the disease. Look at what's happening every day. Continue to anticipate what might happen based on what's happened elsewhere, and those models and just continue to put better and better interventions in place as that information changes.
Gina Gambony: Now, there is a project called the COVIDTracking Project. Are you familiar with that?
Lilian Peake: Yes, I have seen that.
Gina Gambony: According to the COVID tracking project, the testing rate in Virginia is not doing well compared to other states in the country. It's ranking 37th in the country. What do you make of that?
Lilian Peake: I'll say that, you know, our testing is increasing. Other states like Washington State and New York and California that had early outbreaks, they're quite a bit ahead of us in the amount of disease that they had. A lot of the testing was really focused on those areas. We have had testing, testing has continued to increase. And we see that increasing. And early on, we did have testing sufficient for the people who were really exposed. So I think that are testing will continue to increase, and we'd like to have, we want more testing, too. And I'm happy to see more tests coming online. And we'll continue to follow that situation and work closely with our health care providers to make the best use of the resources that we do have.
Gina Gambony: Is that one of the biggest issues right now, we need more tests?
Lilian Peake: I think right now, the biggest issue is that we're all preparing. So we've done a lot of pandemic flu planning in the past, and so we do know what to expect when there is this type of pandemic. And it's important now just to be preparing for health care systems, and they are doing that. To know what to expect and what they can put into place to manage more numbers, more people who need medical care, putting plans in place for how we deal with all this social distancing, how we continue to have our kids educated. How we continue to stay connected in our families. That's really what the biggest issue is now. How we all work together to get through this day by day. And it is changing every single day. And so we're trying to keep our website at vdh.virginia.gov up to date with new information. There's a lot of tips on there for all different types of people. That's a great place to go.
Gina Gambony: Do you have any sense based on the modeling that you've seen—and I know, you just said how things are changing every day, and it's kind of like trying to nail jello to the wall, I expect—but do you have any sense about when the peak of this outbreak will be for Virginia?
Lilian Peake: No, we can't predict that. The models are just looking at different theories of what could happen and it depends on the impact of social distancing and just how it's transmitted.