Published May 20, 2021
Four infectious diseases experts from the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences reflected on lessons learned from COVID-19 during the annual forum of UB’s Clinical and Translational Science Institute (CTSI) on March 17.
Alan J. Lesse, MD; Timothy F. Murphy, MD; Thomas A. Russo, MD; and John A. Sellick Jr., DO, joined guest speaker John R. Mascola, a vaccine researcher, in a post-presentation conversation about the pandemic.
The first worldwide pandemic in a century caught America off guard, in ways the Jacobs School experts outlined.
“When the pandemic came along we were ill prepared to handle it. In the United States, there is both a central component and a statewide component to public health; those entities were in different degrees of disarray,” says Russo, professor of medicine and chief of the Division of Infectious Diseases.
“One of the problems with our response as a country to the pandemic is there were 50 different responses — 50 different governors making 50 different decisions — and it led to many unnecessary deaths. We need national coordination,” says Murphy, SUNY Distinguished Professor of medicine and senior associate dean for clinical and translational research.
“States were fighting against and outbidding one another to get equipment and supplies. That does not work. There needs to be a much different system,” says Sellick, professor of medicine in the Division of Infectious Diseases.
“The federal government cannot determine what goes on at every town in the United States, but they can at least get everybody on the same page and say, ‘Here is where we are getting the supply. Here is what we expect you to do. Here is the data we are going to gather. Here is what we are going to do with the data.’ It took us more than a year to get to that point,” adds Sellick, section chief of infectious diseases for the VA Western New York Healthcare System and hospital epidemiologist for Kaleida Health.
“In addition to national standards for treatment, we need to make sure that we have a well-funded system for analysis and data-gathering,” says Lesse, associate professor of medicine and senior associate dean for medical curriculum. “In the past, it has been the CDC. During this pandemic with massive death totals, we were not relying on the CDC — we were relying on Johns Hopkins University and the COVID-19 Project because there was nobody else organizing the information that we needed in real time. We were massively behind the rest of the world in sequencing of viral strains for variants. Now we have caught up.”
The pandemic has also hit communities of color the hardest.
“COVID-19 has placed a spotlight on the health inequities in our entire system of health care. People who are underserved, and racial and ethnic minorities, have suffered the most from this pandemic,” Murphy says.
The U.S. now has a large enough supply of vaccines to get everyone eligible vaccinated, but reaching herd immunity is proving challenging.
“With regard to communication, we have to use many different approaches in order to reach many different audiences,” says Murphy, director of the CTSI and UB’s Community Health Equity Research Institute. “If we are talking specifically about vaccine hesitancy, what are the reasons? There are so many explanations for why people are hesitant, and there are ways to approach each one.”
“We have struggled to achieve a high level of vaccine acceptance over the past 20 years, due to the fact that we have eradicated or significantly controlled so many of these infectious diseases. Because of the success of the vaccines, the public no longer appreciated the severity of these infections. Further, there has been the rise of the ‘anti-vaxxer’ movement that is based on misinformation-fueled mistrust,” Russo says. “We are now blessed with multiple vaccines directed against SARS-CoV-2, and we have now put hundreds of millions of doses into the arms of individuals. I hope that people will appreciate how vaccines saved us from this pandemic and will more broadly embrace their use moving forward.”
“This pandemic will end, but we have to remember that we cannot divert resources for public health because there will be another pandemic,” Russo says. “I guarantee it.”