The International Center for Journalists (ICFJ) is connecting journalists with health experts and newsroom leaders through a webinar series on COVID-19. The series is part of our ICFJ Global Health Crisis Reporting Forum — a project with our International Journalists’ Network (IJNet).
Six months into the COVID-19 pandemic, many of the successful public health interventions around the world have been the result of international cooperation, said Dr. Claire Standley, an assistant research professor at Georgetown University Center for Global Health Science and Security.
“On a global level, a threat anywhere is a threat everywhere,” Standley said. “Health care workers are facing burnout….supply chains have been strained throughout this pandemic. We're figuring out new and innovative ways to get those supplies to people that need them. But without international collaboration, their systems are going to be continuously strained.”
Standley specializes in the analysis of health systems, with an emphasis on prevention and control of infectious diseases as well as public health emergency preparedness and response. The online talk was moderated by Patrick Butler, ICFJ’s Vice President of Content and Community.
Standley took a frank look at what lessons public health professionals have learned, and which countries have had successful – or less successful – responses to COVID-19. Standley also talked about the difficulties different countries have faced in attempting to find a balance between addressing public health and economic concerns, and what the next steps are in terms of prevention and treatment of the virus.
Here are some highlights:
On what more we know about the virus and updating public health measures
Standley said that thanks to a better understanding of “high-risk transmission zones,” policy makers can now be more targeted with the restrictions they impose. High-risk environments include, for example, large gatherings of people, particularly indoors.
As for masks, she said: “There's an increasing body of evidence showing that masks do reduce transmission risk even if they don't eliminate it completely, so physical distance is still important, even with mask wearing and other such measures.”
On transmission through asymptomatic patients, Standley said that strategies like temperature screening may be less effective than originally thought as we learn more about asymptomatic transmission. “Unfortunately, as we've now seen, it seems like a large proportion of cases may be transmitted – maybe as many as half of the cases – in what we call the pre-symptomatic phase…it means that when contact tracing occurs, contact tracers need to inquire about contacts even before the onset of symptoms. That complicates things. It's hard for people to remember where they were and what they were doing multiple days before they started feeling sick.”
On vaccine development
Standley struck a cautious note on the race for vaccine production and suggested that public health officials and citizens continue to practice measures that we know work.
“I think there is a lot of talk about a vaccine and how life can return to normal once we have a vaccine in place. I find that kind of thinking a little bit disingenuous sometimes. I think we don't know,” she said.
However, she said, the scientific evidence supporting the possibility of a vaccine is quite strong. “It looks likely that we'll be able to come up with some level of efficacy in terms of a vaccine. That it is hopefully safe, but it will still take time to scale that up and will take a long time to distribute those vaccines equitably around the world.”
On deficiencies in the U.S. response to the pandemic
In Standley’s view, America's fight against the pandemic has been hampered by a failure of the public health system and a lack of decisive leadership and decision-making.
“We found in the pandemic, sometimes the systems didn't operate as well as they should have on paper. …The discrepancy between what's really there and what should be there is one piece,” she said. “And then I think the other piece is management, decisive decision-making and leadership.”
On successful pandemic responses in the developing world
Standley named Thailand and Liberia as strong examples of a successful pandemic response in the Global South.
The first case outside China was detected in Thailand so there was a real worry that it might become the epicenter of the disease, she said. “And that has not come to pass – again, largely due to the prime minister taking action or really declaring a state of emergency, putting scientists and public health professionals at the fore.”
She contrasted Thailand’s response to South Korea’s, which responded with widespread testing as a way to halt the spread of the virus there. “Thailand has managed this response with much more limited testing, but excellent healthcare, universal access to healthcare, affordable healthcare, and very strong contact tracing and epidemiological measures as well,” she explained.
In Liberia, she said, enforcement of an early lockdown and decisive leadership has made the difference. There was a strong centralized response limiting travel between counties, and schools and businesses were closed. “Even despite all these measures, there was a slight surge in cases towards the end of June. But rather than allow these restrictions to expire, as they were due to, the president extended the state of emergency and the restrictions again in an effort to get these public health measures back in place and transmission under control,” she said.