The Scowcroft Institute at Texas A&M has been offering regular COVID updates for viewers, and this month’s update, with Dr. Christine Blackburn, featured medical officials from Brownsville, Texas, where the Coronavirus has been particularly destructive.
Blackburn’s guests were Michelle Jones, an epidemiologist, and Dr. Art Rodriguez. Both live and work in the Brownsville area.\
Dr. Blackburn, who is the Assistant Director for the Scowcroft Institute’s Pandemic and Biosecurity Policy Program, led off with updates. In the US, we have approximately 3.3 million cases and 136,000 deaths. In Texas, we have about 274,000 cases and 3,300 deaths.
Following her updates, Dr. Blackburn turned it over Dr. Rodgriguez and Michelle Jones. In Brownsville, Dr. Rodriguez noted, the area is showing a surge in case positivity, with 30 percent of the tests coming back positive. Moreover, the hospital capacity in Brownsville is 400 beds, and right now, the hospitals are at 95 percent, with ICU and ER beds being beyond capacity.
Ms. Jones added that, one of the confounding variables in Brownsville is that there is much foot traffic between the City and Mexico, making collaboration with Mexican officials important.
Both Rodriguez and Jones highlighted some of the steps Brownsville has taken to combat the issue. The City of 185,000 people, has unveiled a five-level threat matrix, which offers suggestions at each stage on how to mitigate the threat; they are taking steps to double their daily testing capacity, which should be complete by next week; and they are working with the local college to lead sanitation classes, which will help educate the public on mitigation and containment strategies.
Dr. Blackburn then took questions, some of which were political, a sensitive area, especially if the questions involve your employer. “How will Texas A&M bring back in-person classes without a spike in cases?” This is, Dr. Blackburn noted, “a significant challenge,” which will be “very, very, very difficult.”
And: “Why doesn’t Brazos County Office of Emergency Management report the percent of positive cases in their testing and their contact tracing more quickly?” This is a “labor intensive process,” and Brazos County Health Department is “doing all they can, and working very hard to respond” to the community’s needs.
These questions were fielded with a smile, perhaps an acknowledgement of the difficulty of answering such questions.
One question, which is on many minds, is the question of immunity. How long will it last? Dr. Blackburne noted that no one knows that yet. Preliminary reports indicate that antibodies may not long linger in the body, limiting the amount of immunity they will provide. But she believes that t-cells might be a fruitful research direction, noting that even if “immunity can last a year, the public could get seasonal vaccines.”
But the discussion was also sobering, with all three panelists seeing this is a long-term issue. It’s not clear that we will return to normal in the foreseeable future, and the panelists suggested we should prepare for “hills and valleys.” The key, Dr. Blackburne noted, is coming up with strategies that can effectively mitigate the spread and impact of COVID but “which can also be sustained.”
Given the level of noncompliance with existing strategies (social distancing, masks), it’s not clear that sustainable and effective strategies exist for our current level of knowledge about the virus.
Many thanks to the Scowcroft Institute, Dr. Blackburn, Dr. Rodriguez, and Ms. Jones for their very informative presentation. The program can be seen in its entirety here.