A year after the arrival of COVID-19, infection numbers are falling, but it’s clear that the illness is one of the worst pandemics in American history.
“Things are starting to look better,” said Jonathan Temte, “but we hit an incredibly terrible day yesterday, with 500,000 — a half a million — dead. One out of three Americans know someone who has died. This is equivalent to the 1918 pandemic. And to put this in context, in 1918, 1919, we did not have supplemental oxygen, we didn’t have ICUs, we did not have ventilators, we did not have antibiotics. We didn’t even know influenza was a virus.”
An Update on COVID-19 Treatments, Vaccines, and Variants
Temte is the associate dean for public health and community engagement at the UW–Madison School of Medicine and Public Health. On the February 23 episode of The UW Now Livestream, he talked about the state of the pandemic, including vaccines, variants, and treatments, with two other UW faculty physicians — Nasia Safdar MS’02, PhD’09, the medical director of Infection Control at UW Hospital and Clinics, and William Hartman, assistant professor of anesthesiology and principal investigator for several UW COVID-19 research projects.
“We’ve all recognized that the ravages that this pandemic has wrought on the globe far exceeds anything in recent and probably long-term memory,” said Safdar, noting that there are more than 111 million known cases around the globe, with more than 2.5 million deaths. “That’s just astounding. It’s difficult to fathom, I would say.”
Safdar believes that the coronavirus will likely change our view of seasonal disease for many years to come. “I think it is likely that we will continue to see the ebbs and flows of a respiratory season,” she said, “and that come every respiratory season, we will find ourselves looking for our masks, where in the past we were militantly opposed to that.”
Hartman discussed various treatment and vaccine studies that UW researchers conducted, noting that medical science proceeded rapidly during the pandemic. “It should be remembered, a year ago March when this came to our shores, that we didn’t have any treatments available,” he said. “We were treating people with vitamins and hydroxychloroquine. That we’ve gone from point A to point P or so is tremendous.”
Difficulty with Herd Immunity
Temte explained how to define herd immunity — and why reaching that goal has been elusive. “We used to think that the figure was around 60 percent” of the population, he said, meaning that public health professionals believed that once six of every 10 people had either survived the disease or been vaccinated, society at large would feel the benefits of immunity. But new, more infectious variants of coronavirus, have raised the bar. “This increases the herd immunity threshold we need to get to,” he said, “so now we’re looking at 88 percent.”
The three doctors each gave a brief presentation before taking questions from the audience watching live on YouTube. Mike Knetter, president and CEO of the Wisconsin Foundation and Alumni Association, hosted the conversation and served as moderator. To hear more from Safdar, Hartman, and Temte, view a recording of The UW Now. The series will continue with new episodes every Tuesday evening. The next event will be March 2 and will look at the present and future of the restaurant industry.