Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley, representative for the Mass. 7th District, held a COVID-19 tele-town hall on Wednesday evening with Boston University School of Public Health Professor and Epidemiologist Dr. Sandro Galea, taking call-in questions from constituents for about an hour.
“Our lives have been brought to a grinding halt as we grapple with new and necessary urgent actions,” said Pressley. “I wanted to take the time to answer some questions, pass on some resources and to ensure to you that the needs of this district continue to be centered.”
Dr. Galea took a moment to “frame” where the pandemic was at: “We are truly in an unprecedented time that was inconceivable just a couple of months ago. Globally, there have been about 200,000 cases of coronavirus and about 8,000 or 9,000 deaths,” he said.
“In the U.S. in the past months we’ve had about 800 cases with nearly 200 deaths. Now, we’re seeing coronavirus in Mass. with about 200 cases so far and no deaths.”
Galea said that the epidemic is “sweeping” the world, adding, “We are moving as a society towards limiting our physical interactions in order to mitigate the viral spread so that we do not overwhelm our health system, which is not designed to take a large influx of new cases.”
He also wanted to highlight a possible tweak in language to encourage more connectivity in a difficult time:
“I would argue that what we are doing right now is physical distancing, not social distancing,” said Galea, “We are creating physical distance between us to limit the spread of the virus. But we should be doing that in the same breath as we are maintaining our social connections and sense of community and common sense of purpose.”
Galea chairs a task force pulled together in the last week by the Mass. Public Health Association (MPHA), which he says will make special recommendations to the Commonwealth on Friday (March 20) to ensure that all responses to the pandemic are done equitably.
Excerpts from the exchange between Congresswoman Pressley, Dr. Galea, and their questioners follow:
Q: How long will it be until we can expect more widely-available testing in Mass. and when is the right time to call your doctor or head to the emergency room if you think you’re symptomatic?
Dr. Galea: There are a lot of efforts going on trying to scale-up testing as quickly as possible. There is testing, there’s just not enough testing. The Commonwealth is trying to move to 1,000 tests today and it’s going to take a few days if not weeks to get more tests. One of the challenges at the moment is that many people think they have the disease and we’ve slugged the health system. I would encourage everybody— if you think you have the disease and your symptoms are fever, cough, and shortness of breath— you can call your healthcare provider and discuss the symptoms before going to an emergency department. Obviously, if you are in acute distress, you should go to an emergency department right away. We need to make sure we do not flood the healthcare system with those of us who don’t need to be there.
Pressley: When we are talking about health care resources, we need to make sure that we are not only talking about the need to ensure that our hospitals have the workforce and the equipment that they need-- both for protective reasons and testing-- but also our community health centers.
Q: I haven’t heard anything about what you are doing with the men and women that are incarcerated? How are you treating them?
Pressley: I serve on the Oversight and Reform Committee, and so in my capacity there, this was one of my first lines of questioning in the space of accountability with the National Institute for Infectious Disease and Allergies (NID.) Also, the CDC is to offer stricter guidelines and protocols to the Bureau of Prisons. Up until our line of questioning there had been no guidance provided.
Certainly, I do believe that there are vulnerable populations such as those experiencing homelessness who are in shelters, incarcerated men and women, and immigrants that are in detention facilities run by CDC and ICE. All of these environments present a petri-dish and an ecosystem where COVID-19 could really thrive. I’ve spoken out about the fact that some governors have already employed prison labor to produce alcohol-based hand sanitizers, which incarcerated women do not even have access to themselves. It’s banned from prisons because it is alcohol-based.
We already know that many of the prisons are sub-par facilities where many men and women do not have regular access to showers and soap. And again, the population is overcrowded, and this is something that we have to address, both for the safety of incarcerated men and women, for the broader community, and for the staff and personnel who work there. The stats show 95 percent of those who are incarcerated will be released back into our communities, so it’s really important from a containment standpoint that our prisons have access to testing.
Right now, we’ve received no guidance, no information as to whether or not they have test kits, if they do, whether or not anyone has tested positive, or what their containment strategies are. How do you socially distance in an environment that is overpopulated? We know that they have shut down family visits as one way to promote social distancing and mitigation strategies.
We’ve seen some cooperation that family conferencing via video or telephone be free, this is work we have been doing for a long time-- pushing for the de-privatization of such things, but this is an opportunity to really do that. We are urging compassionate release of elders who pose no threat to the public and who are at risk to COVID-19. It’s also an opportunity perhaps to explore clemency or commuting sentences.
Q: I have been concerned about whether or not the virus is airborne, I’ve heard that in intense medical situations the virus has been transmitted through the air. I wonder if there’s research going on that addresses this concern.
Galea: I do not have a definitive answer, nobody does. What we do know is that the transmissibility of this virus is higher than others, and one of the hallmarks that distinguishes it from the typical flu is that we’ve seen cases of one person with the virus passing it on to multiple people. Typically, with the flu, one person passes it on to just one other person. It’s unclear why this is, but research suggests that the virus lingers around much more than other viruses, and it can linger around on surfaces for much longer. The mechanisms of transmission are not entirely clear, but what’s imperative is that we continue to wash our hands and wash surfaces, because it is entirely likely that when someone with the virus has been around, it can stay around.
Q: I’m curious as to what we’re doing to hold the President accountable for his role in not making tests largely available to the public and for really flagging down the severity of this issue.
Pressley: Two things on accountability-- the people should not lose sight of the importance of the elections, that is certainly one way. I do think that what has happened is criminal has made things much harder because we are very behind. In the capacity of the Oversight and Reform Committee, we are conducting oversight of this administration. We have been doing that, and that will not stop. Those are the two levers that we have-- voting, and what I’ll be doing in my official capacity on the committee.