The Sun Valley Wellness Festival and Conference kicks off this weekend. Speakers will appear virtually via an online platform after plans for an in-person festival were curtailed due to the continuing pandemic.
One speaker, Dr. Seth Cohen, will focus on the coronavirus situation and the ways in which the novel virus has disrupted the world. The Idaho Mountain Express conducted a Q&A with Cohen to discuss where the COVID-19 virus currently stands, where the science is going and when the world may be able to return to a state of normalcy.
“The United States unfortunately had a chaotic and sluggish early response to the pandemic by just about any metric,” Cohen said.
Cohen, a board-certified doctor in internal medicine and infectious diseases, has led the COVID-19 clinical program at the University of Washington Medical Center and helped to set up one of the country’s first drive-through COVID-19 testing sites in that state. Currently a clinical assistant professor and the chief of the Infectious Disease and Travel Medicine Clinic at the University of Washington, Cohen said the U.S.’s biggest mistake was a lag in testing early on, “leading to significant blind spots, uncontained spread, and simultaneous regional outbreaks across the country.”
“One of the most powerful tools in public health is a clear communication that helps the public understand and adopt meaningful interventions (e.g. social distancing, masking, and hand hygiene, among others),” Cohen said. Those tools were diluted with “mixed messaging” and led to “fueled inequities in our response, and, painfully, perpetuated a tidal wave of pseudoscience and misinformation.”
Many states and communities opened too fast without adequate teams in place to conduct contact tracing, according to Cohen.
“As someone on the front lines, it has been incredibly frustrating to watch.”
That said, testing capacity has begun to increase, though not in vulnerable populations and those underserved by the current health system, according to Cohen. Public messaging needs to be amplified to continue encouraging the use of face coverings, social distancing measures and regular hand washing.
“Our leaders should be laying the foundation now for the groundswell of trust that will be necessary once a vaccine is approved, including commitment to a transparent approval process,” Cohen said. “Science is apolitical.”
Locally, nearly every city in the county has implemented health orders mandating the use of face masks in public places where social distancing isn’t possible, and the Blaine County School District has created a plan to return students to classrooms in split shifts beginning next month. For Cohen, returning kids to brick and mortar classes is something personal—he has two young children himself—and coping with how to effectively and safely educate them this year is an ongoing struggle.
Data from other countries that have reopened schools in the setting of ongoing community transmission is “not reassuring,” Cohen said.
“With a little luck and attention to community interventions including ramped up vaccination efforts, my fingers are crossed that the flu season could be milder this year, though any case of influenza-like illness in the classroom will be highly disruptive,” he said.
As Zoom fatigue sets in, a vaccine for COVID-19, “cannot come soon enough,” Cohen said.
According to the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare, COVID-19 has killed more Idahoans in a very short period of time than the flu has over several seasons.
“In less than six months, Idaho has logged 273 deaths related to COVID-19 as of Aug. 17,” the Department stated in a blog post this week. “Reported flu-related deaths rarely top more than 100 in a single season, which typically lasts from October to May.”
Between 2016 and 2020, a total of 270 Idahoans died from the flu. As of Thursday, 291 Idahoans have died from COVID-19 since March.