A call for caution, personal responsibility

UCSC Professor Marm Kilpatrick said that small behavior changes can have big results, saving many lives during COVID-19 crisis

If people simply wait around for federal, state, and local governments to save them from the COVID-19 pandemic, rather than take every precaution to keep themselves and their communities safe, “we will lose the economy and our lives,’’ said infectious disease expert A. Marm Kilpatrick this week.

Kilpatrick, UC Santa Cruz professor of ecology and evolutionary biology, delivered that hard-hitting message at the tail end of his online Kraw Lecture, part of a popular series of science and technology talks made possible by  a gift from UC Santa Cruz alumnus George Kraw (Cowell ‘71, history and Russian literature). 

In a Zoom talk that drew 1,300 people, Kilpatrick laid out the life-or-death stakes of human behavior in the face of this epidemic. “We can stop the pandemic by making small changes in our behavior,’’ he said.  “We have to actively choose to do so and do it together.” 

Though governments can help immensely, it is the vigilance of the people, not our leaders, who will determine the final outcome, he said.

Kilpatrick also urged “no close sustained unmasked indoor contact between households.” He warned that transmission within households is very difficult to prevent, so “we need to stop the virus from spreading between households." He called for people to increase the space between them when they socialized outdoors -- “more is better”-- while wearing masks, even if they feel fine, to protect those around them. 

Kilpatrick spoke those cautionary words at a time when health officials have been pleading with the U.S. population to celebrate July 4th at home, with eight states reporting single-day highs in cases, and when Santa Cruz’s mayor, Justin Cummings, has asked residents to consider staying home and steering clear of beaches during the holiday weekend.

On Tuesday, Governor Gavin Newsom reported a 45 percent increase in cases and a 43 percent increase in hospitalizations.

According to a New York Times database, more than 2,653,200 people in the United States have been infected with the coronavirus and at least 127,400 have died.

If people have been socially distancing, but succumb to the temptation to meet up with friends at bars and restaurants from households that haven’t taken the same precautions, “we will get more transmission,’’ Kilpatrick said. “Some people wonder, ‘if the bar is open, why can’t I get a drink in a bar with a friend from another household that I haven’t seen in three months?' If you want to get together safely, do this outdoors, from a distance, and wear masks.”

In his online dialogue with UC Santa Cruz assistant professor of microbiology Jacqueline Kimmey, Kilpatrick also addressed a frequently asked and fatalistic question about COVID: “why delay the inevitable? We will all get infected anyway.” Kilpatrick addressed the fallacy that lies at the heart of the loaded question. Infection, he said, is far from inevitable. 

In most California communities, including Santa Cruz County, less than five percent of the population has been infected. But letting the virus spread now, unimpeded, would lead to 30 to 70 percent of the population becoming infected, causing 20 to 50 times more hospitalizations and deaths, he said. And each month we delay infection, we discover new treatments and make progress on vaccines. He mentioned the three vaccines that are now in clinical trials. There are more than 140 vaccines in development. 

Every month of renewed vigilance is crucial, he said. He mentioned new treatments, including Dexamethasone, which has reduced mortality for between 20 to 33 percent for a subset of patients, and others that reduce hospital stay, including Remdesivir. “Limiting transmissions for a few more months could make a huge difference in illnesses and deaths,” he said. 

Kilpatrick also dismantled the idea that communities with a relatively small rate of COVID-19 infection should let down their guard and follow the philosophy that there’s no need to take action ‘when things seem OK. Things can get bad very quickly.” 

In the face of such a daunting disease, what can people do to stop the spread? Kilpatrick emphasized the three-step approach of “test, trace, and isolate.” To stop transmission via contact tracing, people need to get tested at the very first sign of mild symptoms, he said. Testing must be incentivized by making it free, and easy as possible.

Safe isolation space must be provided for cases and contacts. He also doubled down on the importance of masks to protect communities. When worn properly, they can reduce expelled droplets and microbes by 80 percent, while offering some protection to the wearer. 

He saw no clear, simple and easy path forward for school reopenings. “Everyone working on COVID-19 says reopening schools should be a high priority.’’ But daunting challenges remain. One way to keep schools open is to insist upon “very high frequency testing. A recent paper says you can reduce infection if you test daily.”

But it would be difficult to have sufficient testing capacity, and the cost of such an undertaking could be prohibitive, even if the costs per test were greatly reduced, Kilpatrick said.  The bottom line is that reopening schools and universities safely, cheaply and easily is a challenging proposition, he said. 

Kilpatrick also addressed the phenomenon of “super-spreading events.’’ He mentioned a truism for all infectious diseases including COVID-19: a few cases lead to the most infections.

“Communication is the number-one priority,’’ Kilpatrick said. “We need to make sure everyone understands that the main way the virus spreads is with close sustained unmasked indoor contact. We need to make it clear that we all need to do our part to reduce those kinds of contacts in our lives.“

Watch a video of A Marm Kilpatrick's Kraw Lecture