The Division of Public Health Sciences works to increase community knowledge amid growing concerns regarding coronavirus.
Washington University in St. Louis is closely tracking the spread of coronavirus disease (COVID-19). In partnership with BJC Health Care, Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis is working to raise community awareness and develop a vaccine.
School of Medicine faculty at BJC have shared their knowledge and expertise in infectious diseases and public health with community partners throughout the St. Louis region to help answer questions and create a more informed conversation about this serious health concern.
Hilary Babcock, MD, an infectious disease specialist at Washington University School of Medicine and BJC’s director of infection prevention, shares some important information about coronavirus.
Finding the Meaning in the Madness
With so much information available in the media, it can be difficult to navigate to reliable, up-to-date answers to important COVID-19 questions. Because patient care and public health are of the utmost importance to the School of Medicine, faculty have taken the initiative to share their authoritative knowledge of disease prevention.
Some of the most frequently asked questions, and Washington University physicians’ answers are included below:
Q: How long does it take for the state to get results from a COVID-19 test? And then how long does it take the CDC to confirm the result of that test?
A: The time it takes for the health department to test the sample and have results available is influenced by several factors. The result for a test for COVID-19 can be available in as little as six hours to up to two days. The commercial laboratories which currently offer COVID-19 testing take three to four days for results. This time frame is a combination of the time it takes to transport, process and analyze the sample, as well as how many samples are being tested at once. Once results are available, the ordering physician is notified promptly of any positive test.
Q: Does the pneumonia shot help prevent COVID-19 complications?
A: The pneumonia shots, or Pneumovax and Prevnar vaccinations, are vaccines that help protect patients against a particular bacteria called Streptococcus pneumoniae (Pneumococcus), which commonly causes bacterial pneumonia in older patients or those with underlying lung or immune conditions. It does not provide any protection against viral infections.
Q: If the coronavirus is a respiratory illness, why are so many people buying toilet paper?
A: There is concern that because toilet paper is manufactured in Japan there will be shortages. However, there is no evidence to suggest that supply will be interrupted. There is also fear that people will get quarantined in their homes, therefore, they feel the need to stockpile many different items including toilet paper. However, there is no current plan to quarantine people for prolonged periods of time.
Emergency Management at Washington University
✔️Wash your hands— WashU Emergency Management (@WashUReady) March 9, 2020
✔️Cover your coughs and sneezes
✔️Stay away from people who are sick https://t.co/0D6pkMD6nP
Washington University is restricting faculty and employee travel for work-sponsored activities, especially to high-risk areas; developing detailed protocols for clinical surveillance and treatment, in coordination with local health officials and in accordance with Centers for Disease Control (CDC) guidelines; and communicating policies to faculty, staff and students regarding travel, quarantine and telecommuting.
How to Avoid the Spread of COVID-19
“As a Public Health Sciences faculty member, I wanted to share some important tips,” Politi says.
Politi explains that, while most patients will express mild symptoms, COVID-19 appears to be more easily spread than the flu, has a higher fatality rate and does not yet have a treatment or vaccine.
For these reasons, it is important that the community is informed and follows best public health practices for everyone’s safety. Politi shares a list of easy, effective precautions that can help prevent the spread of COVID-19.
“It takes a community of people looking out for each other to try to contain the virus and slow its spread,” Politi asserts. “If it spreads rapidly, it can significantly strain our health system, and it can put people in danger who are members of vulnerable groups or who are just simply unlucky and respond in more serious ways than expected.”
The Division of Public Health Sciences, part of the Department of Surgery at the School of Medicine, is focused on improving the health and wellbeing of people and communities through educational outreach campaigns, professional talks and media appearances, and partnerships with community health organizations. Efforts from Politi and her fellow faculty in the division aim to reduce the spread of illness by increasing the spread of knowledge in the St. Louis region and beyond.
“St Louis in the 1918 influenza epidemic modeled excellent public health by minimizing big gatherings and taking the threat seriously,” Politi illustrates. “Other cities did not, held large gatherings and saw huge spikes in incidence and fatalities clustered together where it was much harder to respond and treat people effectively.
“Let’s show other communities that we can respond just as well today by listening to the experts’ advice and following good public health practices,” Politi says.
School of Medicine Researchers Work on Potential Coronavirus Vaccine
Sean Whelan, PhD, head of the Department of Molecular Microbiology, leads a lab that is developing a coronavirus vaccine candidate using a virus that infects livestock. Whelan studies how deadly viruses, such as Ebola and SARS, enter cells and multiply. Whelan’s method for developing a potential vaccine is similar to how the Ebola vaccine was created: researchers take a virus that is harmless to humans and replace a protein on its surface with the protein responsible for spreading COVID-19.
“We are replacing the coat of this virus with the coat of COVID-19,” Whelan explains on St. Louis Public Radio. Whelan and Steven J. Lawrence, MD, an associate professor of medicine in the Division of Infectious Diseases, spoke to St. Louis on the Air to inform listeners and answer audience questions about the virus and the possibility of a future vaccine.
“It’s still a long way to go,” Whelan says.
Developing a vaccine and advancing it to human trials is a process that can take months or years. Will it take too long to develop a vaccine, or will there be something available in time to help prevent the further spread of COVID-19? Whelan hopes that a vaccine will become available faster for COVID-19 than for some past viruses. He notes that there are many labs working on vaccine candidates, saying that one of these many efforts may lead to success.
Lawrence says that developing a vaccine is an important step in addressing COVID-19. Treatments, he explains, are useful for patients who are already infected. A vaccine is a better method of preventing the spread of a disease.
While researchers work on developing a vaccine, Lawrence encourages the public to follow good health practices. He especially emphasizes the necessity of thorough hand-washing.
One caller asked what type of soap is best to use when washing your hands.
“The key is to wash your hands for long enough periods of time,” Lawrence says. “It’s about 20 seconds or so. Rub your hands together, make sure you get all surfaces. The technique and attention are more important than the type of soap that’s used.”
Laurie Punch, MD, Associate Professor in the Acute and Critical Care Surgery Section, demonstrates proper hand-washing technique.
Another caller asked if it was true that young children are not at risk of infection from COVID-19.
“So far, from what we have seen, there is very little illness among young children,” Lawrence responds. “We do know that children can be infected. They can carry [COVID-19] and have either mild disease or be asymptomatic.”
The fact that some patients, especially children, can carry and spread the virus without showing symptoms reinforces the importance of developing a vaccine.
Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis puts the health of the public and its campus community at paramount importance. By sharing expert knowledge, medical school faculty strive to inform the community and promote public health.
There are currently no known or suspected cases of COVID-19 on the Washington University Medical Campus. The first presumptive case of COVID-19 in the state of Missouri was identified March 7, in St. Louis County. This person had recently traveled to Italy, where there is widespread ongoing community transmission of COVID-19. The person is not a Washington University student or a member of the Washington University community.
The School of Medicine posts frequent COVID-19 updates to keep community members aware of the most current information available.
To help the St. Louis community stay up-to-date on news surrounding COVID-19, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch has made all of its coverage of the virus free to all readers.