The ‘Rockstars’ of 2020
Category : PROspective
What to do in the time of a pandemic?
So much has happened in the last 5 weeks in the US (longer for other parts of the world, to be sure) and for each of us. We have watched an epidemic unfolding before our eyes. When you are in school studying epidemiology, this is both a movie happening in real life and the core of the very reason you decided to pursue a career in public health. Epidemiologists are making headlines everywhere and your parents, grandparents and friends who were never quite sure what we did (and asked you repeatedly at Thanksgiving dinner) now can talk at length about the work epidemiologists are doing. According to the New York Times on 3/9/20, with regards to COVID-19, epidemiologists are the new rock stars of our current era.
“Epidemiologists, in the main, are assuming it can no longer be contained, and that we should all be responsibly thinking about next steps so that hospitals don’t become overwhelmed. Many of them are worth following on Twitter. Epidemiologists are the new rock stars.”
– Jennifer Senior, Opinion Columnist, New York Times
So let’s talk about what life has been like as an epidemiologist, or one in training, since the end of February. You have had at least one semester considering the ways epidemiologists work, think, and produce data to protect populations or reduce risks. Our thoughts are filled with ideas about how to make the human experience better, either through improving safety, reducing risks, diminishing inequities, or calling out harms. We spent the fall considering the awful side effects of vaping and how epidemiologic data were used to rapidly change policies. That seemed like a once-in-a-lifetime epidemic to happen during your graduate training. Who knew that late winter would give us a much more formidable opponent?
COVID-19, the illness that comes from SARS-CoV-2, was named a pandemic by WHO on 3/11/20. By that time, it had ravaged much of China, having only been first reported on 12/31/19 and named COVID-19 on 2/11/20. Epidemiologists sprang into action taking a wide look at conditions and the myriad of influences that need to be examined.
One of my favorite parts of epidemiology is that it sits at the intersection of politics, social justice, human behavior, and science.
Conditions are influenced by human behavior, travel, and our climate and these issues needed to be considered immediately. Our singular aim is to improve conditions and keep people safe but epidemiologists found themselves at odds with much of the information being presented by leadership in the US. As the public health world set out prevention measures, they were questioned as being too vast, hard to follow, and invasive to our lifestyle. Epidemiologists were asked to prove they would work, but that is not how this is done when we are talking about a brand new, rapidly spreading pandemic. Here is the interesting thing about enacting changes, particularly prevention measures. You cannot prove that prevention measures work after the fact, precisely because they worked.
Much of public health is about making changes to better human life, but without much attention. It is impossible to determine the number of lives saved from epidemiologic research, yet it is unquestionable that our discipline has saved millions from infectious and non-communicable diseases through the implementation of interventions and preventative programs. In fact, the CDC credits epidemiologists with adding 25 years to the average life expectancy of people living in the US since the early 1950s.1 This alone, a truly unfathomable accomplishment, is mostly forgotten as evidenced by the 21st century rise in the anti-vax movement. Yet, in our work, the forgotten past and the unrealized outcomes are our principal indicators of success. Long, healthy lives, not fanfare, signal our victory.
And yet this week the New York Times has called us rock stars and a new article from the Atlantic on 3/25/20 suggests that this pandemic could elevate public health to the centerpiece of foreign policy while the next generation of kids write school essays about growing up to be epidemiologists. This is not the kind of attention we normally get, but since February, I have answered more texts, phone calls and messages asking for interpretation of data, opinions and travel/health advice than I normally get in a year (or a decade).
Our training to understand and use data to protect our communities has not been needed more in my lifetime…
and you are joining our profession at an incredible moment. It is our responsibility to use our current platform thoughtfully and to own what we do not know, because there is a lot about COVID-19 we are still learning daily. Let’s use our skills wisely, and in a steadfast way that does not bend to the whim of politics, but instead affirms what we know, loudly if needed, and names what we still need to determine as quickly and accurately as possible to protect our world. If we do so with disciplined science and ultimately succeed in preventing a much worse outcome, it is likely the world will scarcely remember our contributions. I do believe, however, we are showing a new generation exactly what it means to make a difference in the world through epidemiology.