Navigating a Significant Global Challenge

The coronavirus has landed our entire campus community in an unfamiliar place, and with each passing day the situation shifts and evolves. To help cut through the noise, we recently spoke with Dr. Kimberly Taylor, PNWU’s Chief of Microbiology.

COVID-19: Navigating a Significant Global Chal-lenge with Dr. Kimberly Taylor, Chief Microbiologist at PNWU

Updated 3/20/2020

The coronavirus outbreak has landed us in an unfamiliar place, and with each passing day the outlook shifts. The words that fill headlines about COVID-19 are stupefying, and new pieces of conflicting information seem to appear every moment. To cut through the noise, we sat down with an expert on viruses and communicable diseases.

Dr. Kimberly Taylor’s viral-knowledge has helped to earn her membership in the American Society for Microbiology and the American Medical Schools Microbiology and Immunology Chairs association. She currently serves as the Chief of Microbiology at Pacific Northwest University of Health Sciences in Yakima, Washington.

At the time of this writing, Washington’s Department of Health reported 1,376 confirmed cases of COVID-19, 7 of which were in Yakima.

It seems that many people discussing this are referring to the response as either an overreaction or an underreaction, with very little middle-ground. So, is this an overreaction? Are we not taking this seriously enough?

When emergent situations occur and the internet serves as a mixing vessel for perspectives, there will most likely not be a lot of middle-ground. To help control over- or under-reactions, it is recommended that all people follow the World Health Organization (WHO), Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC,) state departments of health (WA-DOH), and local health district directions.

We are told to socially distance (with a minimum of 6 feet), use very good hand hygiene, and of course stay home when sick. We should maintain social distancing recommendations regardless of the presence of symptoms, as they are a crucial element to meeting the goal of slowing transmission.

A common thing I keep hearing is: “You’re only really at risk if you’re old.” That thought seems to be encouraging many younger people to disregard the warnings and continue going out frequently and interacting closely with others. Is this a dangerous assumption? Why is it so important for everyone to follow the latest guidelines?

I think it is understandable that it is difficult for a young, healthy person to see that their actions might increase risk to others, but it is important that we work together to not only protect our most vulnerable (an essence of our “humanness”), but not further strain a healthcare system that continues to need to respond to all healthcare needs apart from the COVID-19 needs.

In the March 19, 2020 NIH Directors’ blog, Dr. Francis Collins stated very succinctly: “…it is recommended that people stay at home as much as possible, going out only for critical needs like groceries and medicines, or to exercise and enjoy the outdoors in wide open spaces.”

I think it is important to note it is being estimated that for every one infection we know of, there could be 5 to 10 that are yet to be diagnosed, but that are simultaneously asymptomatically driving infection.

Unfortunately, our state is suffering immensely from this outbreak, with more COVID-19-related deaths reported in Washington than anywhere in the U.S. in your opinion, what can people in Washington expect in the coming days and weeks? What should people across the country prepare for?

We will know more as our knowledge of the epidemiology continues to increase, but I believe we have guidance at this point that we should be utilizing as part of our preparation.

Social distancing (regardless of whether one is displaying symptoms), recommended hand hygiene, not touching faces (we need to stop biting, licking, scratching, picking, and rubbing), and curtailing travel are what we should be already doing as preparation measures. This is what we have known to provide the most success in “flattening the curve” and decreasing transmission and illness from the SARS-CoV-2 virus.

What steps should we all be taking now?

Our community should be following all World Health Organization, CDC, state department of health, and health district instructions to maintain social distancing (no closer than 6 feet), limit non-essential interactions, maintain excellent hand hygiene throughout the day, but of course especially after sneezing, coughing, etc. and after bathroom use. Respiratory etiquette at any point in time involves covering a sneeze or a cough with a tissue, or even our bare hands, after which hand hygiene is practiced. We should also be regularly cleaning commonly touched or used surfaces.

Many people do not think of their cell phones or other mobile devices as being transmitters of disease, but those are some of the most commonly-touched surfaces.

For hand hygiene, warm soap and water, or alcohol-based hand sanitizer with a minimum of 60% alcohol content, for 2 rounds of the “Happy Birthday” song (for either method of cleaning) and become comfortable with the social disruption we know this is causing.

How can the situation in Washington serve to inform the rest of the country?

Even though we are considered the epicenter, I think if we all — in solidarity — take the same approach across the country, we will be role modeling best practice in control and mitigation.

Many people are currently working remotely from home, often alongside their children who have had their schools postponed. Any advice for people working through the many adjustments they are forced to make at this time?

This period of time (which is yet to be determined) is testing our ability to apply all of the multi-tasking features we have been asked to incorporate into our tech-based, faster paced lives over the past couple of decades.

We have an opportunity to apply our skills of going in many directions throughout the day to a situation where we have been asked to “hunker down” by Dr. Anthony Fauci, Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease of the NIH. I would suggest we enjoy spending time with each other, and work to organize discrete pieces of the day around themed times, if possible.

For example, commit to checking emails before your children get up, then switch gears into your time with them. Once they’re ready for some down time, dedicate time to another element of what would otherwise be a typical day.

This will be an adjustment for many, but if we follow our public health guidelines to reduce transmission, relax, take care of each other, and enjoy each other within our households, we will all fare better.

We’ve been told to wash our hands and not touch our faces countless times by now. What other simple steps should people be taking to help limit the spread of this virus? What sort of things should we absolutely not be doing?

We should absolutely not be violating the 6-foot social distancing guidelines we are being asked to follow. The reason we should follow this comes from our knowledge of the influenza epidemic of 1918. This is not all new territory for us in 2020; we have history to rely on and learn from, just as we hope people in 100 years will remember this experience and utilize the lessons we are developing for them.

Communities that practiced social distancing and curtailed travel in 1918-1919 fared far better. While social distancing is counter-intuitive to our innate desire to be together as humans and is socially disruptive, we are poised with technology to face it better than we ever have been in our history as a species.