Boston Globe holds virtual webinar regarding pandemic outcomes

The illustration of the virus created by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Photo courtesy of the US Department of State

By Anna Stjernquist
BU News Service

“It feels ideological to me, rather than smart, ” said Marc Lipsitch, professor of Epidemiology at Harvard University’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health, about Wuhan’s social isolation measures in a Zoom Webinar organized by the Boston Globe Wednesday.

The Globe Op-Talk, led by Globe Editorial Page Editor Bina Venkataraman, discussed possible outcomes of the coronavirus pandemic to a virtual audience of 815 people, according to Erika Hale, director of Events and Sponsorships at Boston Globe Media Partners.

Lipsitch argued involuntary quarantine measures show little to no evidence of being successful.

 “The evidence that it could work in the United States where frankly people have guns and mistrust the police … it strikes me as extremely dangerous,” he said.

Lipsitch said Covid-19 poses a difficult dilemma; control measures now in place make sure that the health care system isn’t being overwhelmed, but they also prolong the problems caused by the pandemic.

In response to this dilemma, Lipsitch mentioned a set of interventions that would loosen social distancing and possibly allow the economy to come back while controlling the virus.

He mentioned proposals such as lightening social distancing by age, fewer restrictions on lower-risk people and testing people for immunity before sending them back to work.

Finally, Lipsitch said a lot of work is being devoted towards developing electronic contact tracing through cellphones.

“The idea would be that through low energy Bluetooth you can tell if people have been very close to one another and then link that to information of who gets confirmed as a case and then notify their contacts,” he said.

Lipsitch argued that the idea has potential as long as data privacy concerns were addressed.

“I haven’t formed a strong opinion, but I think that might be part of the solution,” he said.

Venkataram mentioned the criticism put forward by the World Health Organization (WHO) and others on the inefficiency of travel restrictions.

Tuesday, President Donald Trump threatened to withdraw funding to the WHO at a White House press conference after lashing out at the organization, saying they criticized his decision to block travel in January.

Lipsitch responded that he first thought travel restrictions were a good idea and could buy the time needed to “ramp up countermeasures.”

“What we did instead was to have a travel ban as a political theater and not do any of the ramping up of countermeasures, so it was completely wasted,” he said.

Lipsitch said it’s important to start looking at society-wide interventions rather than individual cases.

“In the total chaos of having little testing and lots of cases, almost any intervention on individual cases that we know about is just a drop in the bucket, because most of the cases are the ones we don’t know about,” he said.

The Zoom Webinar is part of a virtual initiative launched by BGMP in response to social distancing guidelines in Massachusetts. Hale said that they began making their events virtual in response to the virus outbreak nearly four weeks ago.

Hale said depending on the type of event, they’ve been able to broaden their reach as people are able to tune in from the comforts of their own homes.

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