Three physicians and an epidemiologist from UC Davis, Healthy Davis Together and Yolo County Public Health addressed myriad questions about COVID-19 Monday (Feb. 28) before a virtual audience of more than 200 at a town hall, “Living with COVID-19: What’s Next?”
Mary Croughan, provost and executive vice chancellor of UC Davis and a career epidemiologist, moderated the discussion. The experts answered questions about what the science currently tells us about the pandemic and what we might expect to see in the weeks and months ahead.
Questions ranged from standard inquiries about masking, vaccinations and testing, to whether the panelists would continue to wear masks now that they are no longer mandatory in most public settings.
All four responded that they will continue to wear masks indoors in all public settings.
“I have to follow my own recommendations,” said Aimee Sisson, Yolo County public health officer. She still recommends the N95 or KN95 masks.
The pandemic has taken a turn with a move away from mandates to strong recommendations, Sisson said. As of today (March 1), the state no longer requires unvaccinated people to wear masks in most indoor spaces, and Yolo County will follow suit. Beginning March 12, students in K-12 settings will no longer be required to wear masks in schools, but it will be strongly recommended that teachers and students continue to do so.
Sisson said the number of treatment options for COVID-19 is rising, including oral antivirals to help infected individuals and prophylactic injections for immune compromised people.
“This is another reason why we feel comfortable relaxing restrictions,” Sisson said.
An audience member asked why UC Davis continues its mask mandate, and whether it will change in light of state and county changes.
“We have multiple factors to consider,” said Cindy Schorzman, medical director of Student Health and Counseling Services. University student housing, naturally, has large numbers of people who live in group situations, and the campus has many places and spaces where people cannot appropriately distance from one another. Change fatigue also plays a role.
Croughan added: “At UC Davis, we have worked hard to meet the needs of people and address concerns while keeping people healthy,”
The panelists explained the differences between rapid antigen and PCR tests and when you might want to employ one or the other. The differences, according to Sisson, are twofold:
- The accuracy of the test (PCR is more accurate)
- How quickly you get the results (rapid antigen test is more … rapid)
“There’s a tradeoff for that speed of a rapid antigen test, and that tradeoff is the ability to determine whether you are, in fact, positive,” Sisson said.
UC Davis has committed to have testing resources available to campus at least through June. Schorzman said that she cannot predict if it will last beyond this point.
“We are really happy with our testing program. We’ve kept our numbers low,” Schorzman said. “That said, we want to follow the science.” They continue to look at the data and will make future decisions based on the results.
Croughan said she had been tested multiple times in the last week. “I feel grateful that I work at a university where I can help to protect the community by getting tested regularly,” she said.
Healthy Davis Together will continue to offer saliva-based testing to the community through June. And wastewater monitoring will continue through 2023, said Shari Belafsky who serves as the medical director of the Healthy Davis Together initiative as well as the director of the UC Davis Medical Surveillance Program. She added that new testing resources are available at the county level and also through health care providers and local pharmacies.
Learning to live with COVID-19
COVID-19 will not go away: Instead, the world will learn to live with it, much like we do with influenza, Croughan said. That means communities will need to continue to be responsive to changes in levels of infection.
“We are entering that next phase of learning to live with COVID,” Sisson said. “We are moving away from mandates and into the world of recommendations. That’s what we are going to see more of in this next phase of COVID.” There will be a shift towards wastewater surveillance and away from saliva and nasal testing.
As the state and county move away from mandates, the university will also consider next steps. “We are continuing to monitor the numbers very closely,” Schorzman said. “But beyond the numbers, we are really talking with people and continuing to listen so we can continue to address those concerns. Our campus community has been incredibly resilient and flexible.”
But what about …?
Audience members asked several specific questions about some of the most vulnerable populations, including children under 5 who cannot be vaccinated, visiting elderly and immune-compromised friends and relatives, and holding dances for seniors.
The physicians responded by saying that everyone in these settings should be vaccinated and boosted. They strongly recommended that all parties involved with vulnerable people use high-quality masks (masks are not recommended for children under the age of 2). They also recommended portable HEPA air filters.
“This collaboration has shown how a university and community can work together in partnership to improve the health and well-being of the entire community,” Croughan said. “We want to express our gratitude to our community for being so responsive in following guidelines and for being so compassionate throughout the pandemic. Please continue to consider the health and safety of yourself and others as we combat the spread of this virus.”
Melissa Blouin is the director of News and Media Relations and in the UC Davis Office of Strategic Communications. Reach her at 530-564-2698 (mobile) or firstname.lastname@example.org.