THE EXPERT ON THE CHARACTERISTICS OF A VIRUS
Experience from a post-doctoral fellowship at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control made Doug Graham a go-to expert at Grand Valley when COVID-19 started taking hold. He eventually joined the university’s Virus Action Team (VAT) as a faculty liaison.
Graham, professor of biomedical sciences, was working at the CDC in 2003 when the SARS virus, another respiratory illness, was identified. His work on that pathogen gave him critical perspective about the one that changed everything in 2020.
He has considered it a privilege to be part of VAT and the daily conversation about how the university is responding to COVID-19. He said his individual contributions depend on the topics raised, but there are times his virological insight is helpful for deliberations.
As a scientist, the seriousness of the pandemic is not surprising, Graham said.
“If you were to survey my former colleagues in the special pathogens branch at the CDC about a year ago and asked them, in a potential global pandemic, what kind of virus gives you the most pause, it would not have been Ebola. They would have said some variant of influenza,” Graham said.
“In just about every respect, this novel coronavirus checks the same boxes.”
What has been bewildering to Graham is the reaction some people have had to the pandemic, including those who have resisted preventive measures such as wearing masks and social distancing, or who have not complied with contact tracing.
The risk we all face has been clearly demonstrated, he said. This virus is an airborne pathogen transmitted primarily through aerosols, which are tiny particles suspended in air; they are the gold standard for contagiousness. And people can transmit the virus to others before they show symptoms.
He said for many people, the seriousness is not fully appreciated unless they are directly affected by the virus. He also acknowledged what he called an “amorphous specter that hangs over us,” which can alter people’s perspective about the threat.
There also is sometimes a strong reaction to guidance that has changed and sometimes conflicts with earlier advice about COVID-19, Graham said, but he emphasized that is the nature of research and scientific progress in general.
“Prevailing theories are continually being modified, even overturned,” Graham said. “When this happens it’s because the new knowledge does a better job explaining what we’re seeing, and it’s always driven by the best available evidence.”
THE RESEARCHER WHO STUDIES HEALTH BEHAVIOR AND EMOTIONS
Amanda Dillard, associate professor of psychology, has based her scholarship on how emotions and risk perception influence health behaviors. That means 2020 has been a robust year of research for Dillard.
A pandemic by its nature is an all-encompassing health threat that produces a torrent of the kinds of emotions that Dillard studies, from anxiety to feelings of vulnerability. She said she has been both brimming with ideas for research and collecting data at a rapid pace.
“It’s my chance to study the things I study in real time,” Dillard said. “Risk perception, emotional decision-making — it’s exactly my work, just in another context.”
A major study for Dillard this year was testing how mindfulness influences people’s reaction to the COVID-19 threat. Mindfulness had been front of mind for Dillard as the pandemic took hold. In the spring, when media members asked for her expertise on ways people can approach pandemic stress, Dillard would note that mindfulness was a useful technique.
She then decided to more fully research the benefits of living in the present moment.
In March and April, she collected responses from nearly 550 people in two groups:
Grand Valley students and adults from across the nation in a wide age range.
Her research found that mindfulness was significantly associated with individuals being better off while weathering the pandemic. They tended to be less anxious, were less likely to anticipate a negative experience with COVID and also more likely to seek healthy coping strategies, Dillard said.
“Mindfulness does buffer stress, it can protect people,” Dillard said. “I’m glad we tested it and found support for that in this context. “Because research suggests people can learn to be more mindful, it’s possible we can develop an intervention to help people who are having a particularly difficult time.”
Studying behaviors around vaccines is also on Dillard’s radar, namely how people’s perceived vulnerability affects their intention to get immunized, relative to other types of risk perception. Her hope is to check with research subjects later in 2021 to see if they did get a vaccine.
“When looking at vaccine intention across time, we have seen some changes, which is probably due in part to all of the information in the media but also feelings related to risk,” Dillard said. “It’s a good opportunity to be able to take what we know from health psychology and test what has been happening.”
THE PHILOSOPHER WHO PROVIDES GUIDANCE ON MEDICAL ETHICS
For a medical ethicist such as Jeffrey Byrnes, assistant professor of philosophy, the specter of a pandemic and the difficult questions it can raise have always lurked.
Now that he is immersed in issues surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic, Byrnes said as he and colleagues navigate this dynamic landscape, he is reassured by the depth of knowledge they have amassed.
“This is an unfortunate social and public health circumstance, yet it clearly affirms the way in which a broad liberal arts education prepares one for even the worst-case scenario,” Byrnes said.
Some difficult questions such as triage — where medical personnel prioritize which patients receive the allocation of scarce resources based on a case-by-case survivability evaluation — can be hard for community members to fathom. Others, such as prioritizing who gets COVID-19 vaccinations first, will have a wider general impact.
That’s why when it comes to public health ethics, Byrnes has a consistent mantra: transparency.
“These decisions would be fraught in the best of times, but the fact that this pandemic came in a time that we are polarized as a society has made it even more challenging. There are additional obstacles to bringing everyone together in a community effort to tackle this public health problem,” Byrnes said. “So, it’s not enough to do the right thing. We have to show that we’re doing the right thing.”
The important notion of transparency is central to the work that Byrnes, other faculty members and students have been doing with officials at some Michigan public health departments, including Kent and Ingham. Byrnes has served as the GVSU work group’s liaison to the health departments as officials planned for a fair vaccine distribution, designed to have maximum impact, especially at first when resources were more limited.
He said issues surrounding the pandemic have allowed philosophy students to see the role their discipline can play in the real world as well as how ethical themes could play out in other settings.
“Events like the pandemic simply reveal the way in which major philosophical questions and ethical decisions are always just under the surface of our lives,” he said.