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Lessons Learned One Year into the Pandemic, and What the Future Holds: a Conversation With Epidemiologist Tara Smith

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A visualization of the SARS virus. It is a type of coronavirus and displays the coronavirus' signature crownlike appearance under a microscope.
The novel coronavirus has upended the world economy and transformed our lives. One year into the pandemic, we're still seeing public health policies conflict with politics even as scientific advances provide hope for its end.

This past year has been a busy for Kent State University epidemiologist Tara Smith. Her research focus is on public health and how best to prevent the spread of infectious diseases.

She says Ohio’s early lockdown, the move to remote learning, and the state’s mask mandate were all good moves, but the rapid development of vaccines is what has really allowed us to turn the corner on the pandemic.

"I was very skeptical last February when it was announced that companies like Moderna had started work on their vaccines and that they were going to be mRNA vaccines," Smith said.

"I was very skeptical that they would be done in 12 months and released to the public in that time and that they would be safe and effective since we had not used them in this type of situation before."

"But the vaccines have really exceeded my expectations, both in their safety and efficacy in the population and the ability to get them out."

Where we fell flat
The vaccine development and distribution has indeed been impressive. But Smith says other aspects of our response to the coronavirus crisis have been abysmal.

Tara Smith office
Tara Smith
Tara Smith is an epidemiologist at Kent State University. She's concerned that lifting the statewide mask order too soon, combined with the spread of new, more contagious virus variants will lengthen the pandemic.

"I think the overarching area where we fell flat was the political polarization," Smith said. "That really made things even more difficult than they were anyway."

"President Trump and others in his party early on suggested that the virus was a hoax, downplayed the severity of the pandemic, or saying it would just go away on its own, all of that led to a situation where people doubted any public health measures that were put in place."

"I think our overarching failure was the response at the federal level."

Smith says other standard containment practices like widespread testing and contact tracing were not put in place.

"So when we reopened, we were still in the dark about how widespread the virus was, and I think that really stayed with us," Smith said.

"We were always playing catch up rather than being really proactive."

The race between virus variants and vaccines
Smith acknowledges that we're in a critical phase right now where the vaccines are being delivered to an increasing number of people. But the virus itself is mutating at a rapid rate, and new, more contagious variants, are being seen in Ohio.

Who's going to win?

"It really depends on what we do right," Smith said.

"We can still mask up and distance, as we work on the vaccine rollout to try to get ahead of those variants."

"Right now the problem is that we don't have enough genomic sequencing to really know how widespread they are."

Smith says the there are probably a lot more of the variants, such as the UK variant, B.1.1.7., the South African variant, B.1.351, and the Brazilian strain, known as P.1 here in Ohio than we are aware of.

She's also concerned that Gov. Mike DeWine's threshold of 50 cases per 100,000 over a two-week period is too high.

"That's still a lot of circulating virus out there," she said.

"That's where we were last summer and we've seen what can happen with the spike we had in the winter."

"I'd like to see it down to five cases per 100,000 or lower before lifting health restrictions like the mask mandate."

"It's up to us who wins," she reiterated.

Life with the virus
Smith is concerned that even when we reach DeWine's goal, significant portions of the population will still not be vaccinated, specifically children.

"I have a seven year-old and vaccine trials for that age group haven't even begun yet, so he probably won't be vaccinated until 2022."

"I think our family will still be wearing masks in public settings until the youngest can get vaccinated, and I don't think we'll be alone in that especially among people with children or other people who remain vulnerable."

She's hoping we can hold out for just a little bit longer, and keep wearing masks as a rule of thumb.

"This is something that is not ever going away," Smith said.

"It's something we will have with us, and we will probably need occasional booster shots, especially if some of these variants become dominant."

"But when most of the population is vaccinated, hopefully this virus will be just a minor inconvenience rather than something that causes the level of mortality we saw in 2020."

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A career in radio was a surprising turn for me seeing that my first love was science. I studied chemistry at the University of Akron and for 13 years lived the quiet life of an analytical chemist in the Akron area,listening to WKSU all the while in the lab.