Biden administration vs. COVID-19: U-M experts can discuss

Emily Toth Martin

Emily Toth Martin

University of Michigan epidemiologists are available to discuss the challenges President-elect Joe Biden’s administration will face in combating the coronavirus when he takes the reins in January.

To schedule an interview, contact Nardy Baeza Bickel at nbbickel@umich.edu or text 616-550-4531.

Emily Toth Martin , associate professor of epidemiology at the U-M School of Public Health, is an infectious disease epidemiologist who has been using COVID-19 public health data to help inform mitigation and policy. Martin currently studies COVID-19 spread and the long term effects of infection.

"I think one of the big challenges that we have nationally is the fact that the public health infrastructure in the United States has been in need of investment for decades,” she said. "And so there is a really urgent need to modernize that system and to modernize our testing infrastructure system. And it’s very hard to do that in the middle of a crisis.

"There’s been a lack of federal coordination, both of messaging and priorities and recommendations, but then also of resource allocation. It’s very difficult to solve big testing capacity problems on a local level. You really need national level supply chain work and allocation work in order to make that happen. So what comes with this is also the federal government has lost the public’s trust because of all this confusion and all of the gaps and how things are playing out on a very local level.”

Aubree Gordon , associate professor of epidemiology at the School of Public Health, works on infectious disease epidemiology and global health, particularly the epidemiologic features and transmission of influenza. She’s currently conducting studies on COVID-19 in children, as well as on transmission and immunity across the lifespan.

Gordon, who is an investigator with the Centers of Excellence for Influenza Research and Surveillance, says two main challenges come to mind as we enter the next phase of the pandemic.

"This administration faces a lot of challenges. We-re hitting record numbers of coronavirus cases again, the number of hospitalizations is increasing, the number of deaths are increasing. I think there’s going to be dealing with an epidemic that is going to be harder than ever to control. I would definitely advise them to focus on communication. We need to figure out how to get everyone together on this or, you know, at least as many of us as possible regardless of political affiliations.

"I know it’s been politicized as well but I think a national mask mandate is in order, or getting all the governors and authorities that are in place to make that call in each state and getting them on board. Wear masks so we don’t have to shut down the whole economy, you know? You don’t see people protesting with guns that they have a right to not wear a seat belt. Seat belts are for their own protection. Masks are for your own protection and the people around you.

"I think these are going to be two of the major things. And shoring up of supplies, the supply lines. Major attention needs to be put in place into that particularly for making sure that we can continue testing, people can get the medical care they need and that we’re able to distribute the vaccine because we’re going to have problems in all three of those fronts in the Winter.”

Arnold Monto , professor of epidemiology and global health at the School of Public Health, is an internationally known expert on the transmission, prevention, mitigation and social response to outbreaks and pandemic planning including transmission modes. He chairs the FDA’s Vaccines and Related Biological Products Committee for COVID-19 vaccine reviews.

"I think the Biden administration will realize that there has to be a balance between control of the pandemic through restrictions of daily activity and the economy. We’ve had a great deal of emphasis on the economy under the Trump administration, the feeling that if you really try to respond appropriately with face masks and other other measures, you will in some ways get in and block economic activity. And in reality, that should not be the case.

"We know you can do this carefully, you can do it appropriately. And if you don’t control the pandemic and you keep having spikes, you are going to affect the economy because people will make choices and not do things simply because they’re afraid. A rational approach, bringing people on board, treating people in various states the same and not creating differences when they don’t exist really can have a positive effect.

"We have seen a great deal of politicization of activities that really are public health activities. There should not be any message being sent by whether you wear a mask or not. Wearing masks is just about the simplest thing we can do. It doesn’t get in the way of your regular activities as would be trying to stay out of restaurants or bars. It reduces spread. We need to be sensible about this. I think with careful messaging, it can be done.”

"Vaccine development is the bright area in what the Biden administration is going to face. Vaccine development is moving ahead at a rapid rate and vaccines will become available. One of the biggest problems the Biden administration may have is timing. By the time they really are able to change things, we may well be into the flu season or maybe into a combined flu and COVID, so it’s going to be a big challenge because of the timing.”

Joseph Eisenberg , professor and chair of epidemiology at the School of Public Health, is an expert on infectious disease epidemiology. He is part of a group of scientists from around the country who are involved with the Modeling Infectious Disease Agents Study, an NIH-funded program that focuses on infectious disease transmission modeling with a particular focus on waterborne pathogens. Their work has informed recent Ebola projections about infection rates and deaths.

"Probably the bigger challenge is the fact that because there hasn’t yet been a coordinated federal effort that is trying to support the states, the new administration has to create that anew,” he said. "That’s going to be a huge challenge just to get mobilized and get up to speed with respect to providing the infrastructure that is needed to support states’ response.

"I think the CDC should be playing a more central role and I think CDC has been hurt, their reputation has been hurt. They need to be more visible and need to gain back the trust of the public. They are in charge of response and they are in charge of supporting states. There are some states that may need more help, and CDC can come in and provide that help, training, scaling up and testing and contact tracing. There’s a lot of ways in which a federal agency can support what the states are doing.”

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