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Dr. Sullivan on COVID-19 precautions: ‘We’ve learned the hard way what relaxing does’

Published: Aug. 7, 2020 at 5:54 PM CDT
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BRYAN, Texas (KBTX) - The Brazos County Health District just wrapped the first press conference on COVID-19 in a little more than two weeks.

Brazos County Alternate Health Authority and infectious disease specialist Dr. Seth Sullivan addressed the current status of COVID-19 ahead of the anticipated return to classrooms this fall. Then, he joined First News at Four to discuss further. See the full conversation in the video player above.

The Brazos County Health District does not hold regular press conferences anymore. Why did you call this one today?

What we do is we monitor a lot of questions that come in, and a lot of questions have been coming in about school. We really wanted to take the opportunity to outline the discussions that we've been having and take some questions from our media partners as well to really just encourage the current situation. There is a lot of anxiety around school starting for some folks, so we really need to make sure that we're communicating. We're dedicated to that end. This felt like a good time. The last time that we talked a couple weeks ago, there was some question about whose decision it would be as to how schools, when school would be opening. There was some confusion there that we wanted to clarify. That felt appropriate now. We will be monitoring the situation these next several weeks as students are moving back into the community. Lots happening with COVID-19, and we continue to fight the fight.

What is the health district’s involvement in the process of handling potential COVID-19 in our schools?

We’re going to be right there for both cases and prevention. The prevention side is what we’re doing right now, and this is all of the plans that have been set up and are being worked on currently. Whenever we set up a plan, we have questions about how it will work and the nuance within implementation. We’ve been in discussion with our superintendents, with our school nurses, to ensure that we are helping with those questions. We have some experience now, six months of experience of other businesses and industries opening. Our experience with long-term care facilities and the anxiety around long-term care facilities--we bring that experience to the conversation so that we can help and be there to assist. As for prevention and testing and contact tracing, we’re working on putting together a standardized process for this that will be dedicated to the schools so that we know, ‘Here was a case. It was in this class. This is the seating arrangement.’ There’s ways that through doing this, we’ve learned here’s the best way to get that information back so that we can help you interpret that information and make decisions based on that information. All of that is happening right now and will definitely be in place before school starts.

Five weeks ago we were in a much worse place in terms of cases of the virus. What are we doing right? And how can we keep it up?

I think there’s a couple things that happened. This was right at the time when the governor issued the mask order. But also the bars were being closed at that time. We also have to give credit to the community--a recognition of what was happening and then a response. We were seeing these cases. It was very uncomfortable, there was a lot of anxiety about what that’s going to do to our hospitals. What’s that going to do to our community. And so I think there was a response that was impressive. I think we have to say that face masks work. There is a clear distinct correlation between those two. When face masks weren’t widely being used, then were adopted, and a decrease in the rates. But also there’s other things. We know that people were back to distancing better. Back to taking this more seriously. These are the things we’re going to need to carry forward these next several months, but in particular as schools open back up and students come back. That we continue to wear masks, and we continue to abide by these principles that clearly have worked. Our numbers are in a much better place than they were five weeks ago. How concerned are you that with school going back into session that we could see another surge? I think it’s inevitable that we’re going to see more cases. We need to find those cases and trace around those cases. We just have more people in this community. We’re all anticipating it. Then the questions really becomes, how is that significant? How is that going to impact our community? How is that going to impact our hospitals? The vulnerable? This is all the things that we need to continue to monitor. But as you mentioned, we’ve learned the hard way what relaxing things does. We were doing great and then we relaxed too much, and then we had cases that were very difficult to deal with and got very close to being dangerous. We do not want that. We know that masks work, and we know that this community responds to the challenge of doing the right thing and getting those numbers back down to where they need to be so that we can continue to operate safely.

What should we be taking from the reported hospital occupancy numbers?

The big picture here is we’re looking at trends. This is literally by the hour these numbers are changing. We can see a peak, but what we don’t want to see is an entire elevation of the trend. When we see that we get concerned. Especially—and we need to know also—how many of those are COVID-related. How much is COVID contributing to that occupancy rate. When we watch those two things in concert, we can get a good idea of when we would need to move to the next phase. We have those stages of planning that have been ongoing with respect to opening hospital beds and getting more personnel if needed. Thankfully we have not had to do those things, despite the surge that we saw five weeks ago, the number of cases that we were dealing with. But that’s really what we’re watching here. We look at the number from day to day, and we see that oh, that went up 3 percent, but the next day it goes down. At the end of the day, I would look at this as a trend. The occupancy rate, the idea there is how many beds that we have available that are currently being used. And this is all patients, including patients that are not related to COVID. This gets back to the New York experience of seeing their hospitals overwhelmed—and in northern Italy as well. That was devastating for that community. This is about maintaining occupancy so that we can safely take care of our community.

Flu season is upcoming. What are your thoughts on the intersection of flu season and the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic?

This is a great year to get your flu shot. If you’re not used to getting a flu shot, this is your year. This is the year to step up. Wearing masks as a community is a civic duty, as is getting your flu shot. We do have a vaccine for influenza, a widely used vaccine, demonstrated over and over to be safe. This is something that I would recommend first and foremost. The other thing that’s interesting here is that flu is transmitted very similarly to the way the SARS-CoV-2 virus is transmitted. We can socially distance, and we can wear a mask. There are some who wonder if our flu rates might be better this year. I don’t know. No one knows. It’s going to be interesting to see. But certainly, we know that there are things that work. We know that influenza vaccinations work. We know that social distancing works. We know that masks work. These are three things that we need to be doing anyway. So when we do those things. We watch flu rates, and we will continue to watch what our influenza rates are. So those are the principles I would hit home here: maintain what we’re doing with COVID-19, and add that influenza vaccine, that flu shot, this year.

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