As COVID-19 continues to spread throughout the United States, faculty at the Yale School of Public Health are working to ensure that vulnerable populations are protected.

Researchers and faculty across Yale are lending their expertise to support the growing base of scientific evidence available to understand the risk the novel coronavirus poses to the public and to dispel misinformation surrounding the outbreak. Many of these researchers are putting aside other work to focus exclusively on COVID-19.

Saad Omer, director of the Yale Institute for Global Health, has played an active role in addressing misinformation surrounding COVID-19 and promoting policy to ensure the safety of vulnerable populations as new information emerges. In an interview with the News, Omer acknowledged that there is still scientific uncertainty surrounding the virus, but offered a reminder to the public that the best policy surrounding COVID-19 is found at the intersection of strong scientific information and a clear plan of action.

“You want a scientist-led response, not a politician-led one,” Omer said. 

Omer pointed out that scientific understanding of the virus continues to evolve, as does the determination of what populations are particularly vulnerable to the virus. What is generally agreed on, Omer explained, is that those over the age of 70 are considered high-risk, in addition to people with underlying health conditions such as hypertension, diabetes, and cancer. Still, this does not mean that younger people are low risk. 

“Younger people are certainly not immune,” Omer said. “Even though the virus’ presentation may look less severe in younger age groups … we know that transmission is occurring across all age groups.” 

James Meek, the associate director of the Yale office for the Connecticut Emerging Infections Program, is working to build up population surveillance networks for COVID-19. The program is a collaboration between Yale, the Connecticut Department of Public Health and the Centers for Disease Control that provides epidemiological data on infectious diseases. 

The Connecticut Emerging Infections Program is tracking confirmed COVID-19 cases and tracing contacts to identify who else might be at risk of becoming sick after an exposure. They are using this data to help identify an accurate number of COVID-19 cases in Connecticut and build out descriptive data on patients to better understand who is getting sick. This data will help scientists recommend targeted prevention strategies for frontline healthcare workers and groups that have difficulty with physical distancing, such as nursing home residents. Meek believes that it is still too early in the U.S. epidemic to definitively identify everyone who is most vulnerable. 

“It’s going to be a while before we can [identify] that information,” Meek explained. “So, the best thing to do is to look at the Chinese data that has come out … It might not be totally comparable [with the U.S.], but I think it’s a great place to start.” 

Epidemiology of microbial diseases student Frank Wu SPH ’21 is witnessing the positive impacts of physical distancing measures while waiting out the outbreak in San Francisco after class cancelations. He believes that the shelter-in-place order implemented in the Bay Area, though disruptive to daily life, is the right measure to curb the spread of the virus. 

“I think the social distancing measures are protecting vulnerable populations,” Wu said. “As we understand more about how the virus is transmitted, we can probably implement other public health measures that aren’t so invasive … But this is a good way to buy us more time.” 

For groups who can’t practice strict physical distancing measures, such as nursing home residents, Omer suggests limiting congregations within communities and ramping up disinfection measures. Healthcare staff should carefully monitor their own health and remove themselves from direct contact with vulnerable patients at the first sign of symptoms. 

Despite the need for physical distancing, Omer reminds that this is a great opportunity to connect with loved ones in other ways. 

“Call your grandma and grandpa. Turn on that FaceTime camera and host watch parties to unite generations,” Omer said. “So that social isolation is not the same thing as physical distancing.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control, there are currently over 142,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the United States.