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Foundation for a Healthy St. Petersburg gathers public health experts to talk Covid-19

Megan Holmes

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Race Equity and COVID-19: Strengthening Community at a Time of Crisis – A Virtual Town Hall from FHSP on Vimeo.

In keeping with its mission, the Foundation for a Healthy St. Petersburg facilitated a panel of public health experts, including Dr. Donna Petersen, vice chair of the Foundation and Dean of the School of Public Health at the University of South Florida; Dr. Ulyee Choe, Director of the Florida Department of Health, Pinellas County; and Randall H. Russell, CEO of the Foundation for a Healthy St. Petersburg earlier this week to discuss the Covid-19 pandemic.

The Foundation, whose mission is to advance health equity in South Pinellas County, gathered hundreds of attendees, ranging from business and nonprofit leaders to elected officials and community members, to attend the public health panel virtually via Zoom Tuesday afternoon.

The panelists provided expertise from their respective fields and experiences. Petersen began the conversation by defining public health and explaining the exceptional public health challenges surrounding the novel coronavirus.

She explained that while Covid-19 is novel and therefore something that humans have not seen previously, local communities have been learning in real time from other countries and other communities. The more we learn, Petersen said, the more we see that this virus is going to be tough to beat, and the clearer it is that we’re in it for the long haul.

Petersen explained that because of insufficient testing capacity, traditional public health protocols have not been available. Instead of containing those infected with the virus, a population deciphered through expansive testing, only those showing symptoms have been tested, despite the evidence that many of those infected with the virus may be asymptomatic.

Similarly, prevention of the disease, whether by vaccine or “engineering solutions” like masks and PPE, has been stymied by shortages of those materials. Instead, the public must adhere to less effective, but important solutions like hand washing, good cough hygiene and not touching the mouth or eyes.

Because testing and preventative solutions are unavailable, public health has relied on policy measures designed to reduce exposure and transmission of the virus. These include social distancing, shelter in place and safer at home orders, closing nonessential businesses and prohibiting large gatherings.

As Petersen explained, these measures have worked remarkably well in Tampa Bay by slowing transmission of the virus and protecting the healthcare system to enable it to care for the sickest patients.

Going forward, Petersen said the most important factors to getting back to “normal” will be the ability to test not only for presence of disease, but for presence of antibodies that would indicate a person has already been exposed, and is therefore immune to the disease. With that information, low risk people could emerge back into the community.

While that testing protocol is in the works, Petersen says it is imperative to maintain social distancing, in hopes of smoothing what she calls “a rough landing” for reopening the economy, a situation in which reopening too early or too quickly could lead to outbreaks and extended closures.

“We are together,” she said. “We are in this collectively, we all want to be healthy, we want to be safe, but we also want to get back to our lives, get back to a robust economy, get back to our ability to enjoy each others’ company.”

Russell, whose extensive experience in public health has focused previously on the HIV epidemic, reminded listeners that public health crises reveal the fragile nature of our health care system and the racial disparities built into it.

“This Foundation understands that the treatment of people of color in this country is criminal,” Russell said. “It’s more criminal when it’s exposed by a virus like this, like a hurricane, or like HIV. In all of those cases, the fragility and vulnerability of a culture that has been suppressed by centuries of discrimination plays out.”

“How can we take this moment and this knowledge and move it forward?” Russell asked.

He recommends taking this crisis as an opportunity to move forward in deep, committed ways across all sectors to focus on race equity.

“Why are we not focused on the nursing homes, as a policy issue, that have 50 percent of more African Americans?” Russell asked. “We know that if you’re elderly and African American, your immune system is compromised, as Dr. David Williams informs us, it’s the toxicity of race. Just the fact that you’re black – the stress, the toxicity [racism] brings to your life weakens your immune system.”

Choe, who has been front and center in the Pinellas County response to Covid-19, explained that regular swab testing will soon be augmented by the antibody testing referred to by Petersen. He says that testing will first go to front-line healthcare workers, law enforcement officers and other essential workers to help the public health community understand the burden of disease within the community.

Choe reminds listeners that Covid-19 spreads much easier than the flu, infecting  five to six others with each case, and is up to 10 times more deadly.

According to IHME model, the state of Florida has already passed its peak of infections, but according to Choe, that is just one model, and public health officials must examine all models while crafting policies and recommendations for how to re-open. From a health equity perspective, Choe said African Americans are disproportionately affected by Covid-19, as with a number of infectious and chronic diseases. African Americans face higher hospitalization rates due to Covid-19, 19 percent compared to 11 percent for the general population.

Watch the full video above for more detailed information from public health officials and more information about upcoming testing.

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