On COVID crisis: ‘It’s going to be a while,’ UB infectious disease expert warns

Coronavirus
WATCH INTERVIEW WITH DR. THOMAS RUSSO, INFECTIOUS DISEASE EXPERT

BUFFALO, N.Y. (WIVB) – When? That’s the big question.

When will this public health nightmare be over?

“Unfortunately, it’s going to be a while,” said Dr. Thomas Russo.

He says there are certain factors that will determine when the coronavirus pandemic ends, and when mitigation measures can be relaxed.  

“If we had an efficacious vaccine and we could vaccinate the population, that would be one way to end this.” said Russo, an infectious disease expert at UB’s Jacobs School of Medicine.

He says another way to potentially mitigate the number of cases would be active drugs that could prevent infection.

“As of now, we don’t have those drugs. We’re hoping that they’ll be available in the near future, sooner than the vaccine.”

Some hope there will be some seasonality to the virus. But Russo says it’s still not clear how much the warmer weather will help blunt the number of cases in the coming months.

“If that proves to be the case it’s likely that we’ll have a resurgence when flu season begins again in the fall,” he said. “However, I’m concerned…that remains to be seen. But so far the virus hasn’t shown any evidence that it’s at least letting up at this point.”

Another factor involves a significant number of people getting infected and a herd immunity develops across the population.

“Unfortunately, that’s going to involve a significant faction of the population. We’re still well away from that, which is actually good news. We prefer the vaccine come before that scenario,” Russo added.

Short of all of those factors, Russo says all we really have right now are the public health measures like social distancing, wearing masks and hand hygiene.

 “That unfortunately, is the one tool we have, and we need to keep on with it.”

Russo says that he is “extraordinarily concerned” about people getting the wrong idea when hearing reports that the numbers are declining in certain aspects of the crisis.

Despite talk of reaching a plateau, Russo says there are still a lot of cases out there.

“If we let up on these public health measures, there’s an almost certainty that we’ll have a resurgence of cases,” Russo explained. “Obviously, the greater number of cases we have, that’ll translate into the greater number of bad outcomes.”

When will be the time to relax social distancing and other mitigation measures now in place?

Russo sees two scenarios from a public health, medical point of view, that could potentially guide us down that path.

“The first would be when the number of new cases in a given community get down to zero, or close to zero,” Russo said. Plus, a couple of weeks, he says, which is the incubation time of the virus.

“When that occurs. If you package that together with very close monitoring for a resurgence of new infections, that we believe is probably the best approach.”

It remains to be seen when cases get down to zero in Western New York and Erie County. Russo emphasizes that it’s difficult to predict how long that will take. 

“And it’s also difficult to predict, once we relax those measures, how long will we get away with that before we see a resurgence of the virus.”

Russo cautions anyone that’s thinking of gathering this weekend for Easter.

“It’s going to be a risk.”

Risky, he says, on a couple of different levels.

For one, the science tells us that there could be a significant number of people that can be infected and transmit the virus while being asymptomatic.

“We can’t exclude the possibility that some of those individuals in each group may either be asymptomatically infected, or they’re in that preclinical stage where they’re not going to develop symptoms for three days from now,” Russo said.

He says the group at greatest risk is the vulnerable population. In another words, if you’re older, or have underlying diseases.

“You can never get the risk to zero, and there’s a small but finite risk for any sort of gathering, and you really need to think carefully of this if the people that you get together with are at risk for a bad outcome.”

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