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A Q&A with Dr. Jay Wolfson

The Oracle interviewed public health professor and Senior Associate Dean of the Morsani College of Medicine Jay Wolfson about the challenges posed by COVID-19 for the spring semester as well as essential safety precautions to slow down the spread of the virus.

1. What risks do you think the new variant of the virus poses to the community?

We’re learning about it every day. It’s brand new, we only have … a few hundred cases of it to look at. We’ve only known about the core COVID variant since January of last year, and we’re still learning about that. So we have to be able to monitor and understand how it works, and whether or not it will be susceptible to this vaccine or whether it’s going to pivot again and do something different. The fact is, it’s extremely contagious. So it doesn’t appear to be any stronger, it doesn’t make you any sicker. But it makes more people sicker faster.

2. What does a higher transmissibility rate mean?

If I have a cup of poison, and that cup of poison could make 1,000 people in Hillsborough County very sick, but then I get a different variety of it, and I take one-third of a cup of that poison and it can make 1,000 people, or 2,000 or 3,000 people sick. It’s a more powerful poison only in terms of its ability to get into people’s bodies and infect them. It doesn’t make them any sicker, but it gets more people faster and it spreads more easily. So it requires less exposure. That’s why it’s dangerous. And again, we’re still learning about it, we don’t know enough so we’re building that airplane as we’re flying it.

3. What are some of the dangers associated with noncompliance of the safety protocols, including the use of face coverings and avoiding large crowds, as the new semester starts?

Well, the dangers are especially high because most of our students are fairly young and healthy, and they would be most likely, if they were exposed to and contracted the disease, to have minimal or no symptoms, be asymptomatic or mildly symptomatic, so they wouldn’t even know it. And then they could spread it.

So it’s not so much that we’ve had a problem on campus, we’ve been very good on campus … But what happens off campus before classes, after classes and on weekends is the great danger. And as you said, our students like to be able to chill out … [but] this time, we’ve got a silent, deadly killer. And the silent, deadly, infectious agent that will make a lot of people sick.

The sad part of this, not just for our students but for our community at large, is that it doesn’t seem to hit home until somebody has had it come into their life, directly or indirectly because it’s invisible.

So, the university is a safe place. We want it to be safe in a lot of ways. It’s a safe place for the spread of disease on campus, but it’s not being generated on campus. It’s being generated off campus and when people do get sick, or if they’re asymptomatic and they come into the classroom, even though we’re social distancing within the classroom, it increases the risk.

I think we’re still doing a really good job of separating folks, checkerboarding people in the classrooms and giving people the option and appropriate classes of doing asynchronous learning, teaching from home if they can until we get a better handle on this disease. Again, we’re learning as we’re going and whatever we do, we should not imagine that just because there is a vaccine that ‘Oh, it’s OK now. I don’t have to worry now more than any other time.’ We have to be even more diligent, more vigilant … because these next two months are when we project the disease to skyrocket. Then we’re in worse trouble than we can imagine so we have to find a way to push that curve down, and the only way, the only way to do this, which is the very hard way, is through personal discipline and responsibility.

The challenge is that even when we have [a vaccine], we don’t know if it is going to confer long-term immunity. So we still have to be careful. This is an alien. This is a creature that has come to us from outer space. It’s like it’s traveled billions of light years through wormholes, and it’s really smart, and it knows how to sneak up on us and change. This COVID thing is like nothing else we’ve ever had and we have to play by the rules based on how it behaves because it’s not going to change this behavior, and it doesn’t care if we’re older, young, black or green, tall or short. It’s going to come into us, it’s going to attach to one of our organs and either immediately or sometime in the future is going to erupt and give us respiratory illness, kidney disease, brain disease or heart disease. That’s what it’s doing. And just being young does not exempt you at all.

4. When do you think the college student age group will get to take the vaccine?

Well, first we have to have enough vaccines. I expect by April to May we’ll have enough being produced. We need tens of millions of doses, so by April and May for sure, unless something happens with the production, we should have enough available to begin to vaccinate, but then we have to get over that hump and we have to vaccinate 75% of the population to achieve what we believe to be a successful herd immunity, assuming that the herd immunity lasts.

5. What message do you have for students as they return to campus for the spring semester?

It’s not over yet, we’re right in the midst of it. Don’t imagine that the vaccine, which you don’t have access to yet, is going to protect you. The only thing we can do is develop this team spirit and USF has the capacity to organize itself around being a team that’s going to protect itself and its community and its family members from this horrible disease, which we’re still learning about every day and which is growing and affecting our community. But, it has to be a conscious, intentional, responsible and respectful effort that we engage in. And each one of us, as a student, faculty member and staff member is a member of this team. And while we have to work together, the key is that each one of us has to actively be present and make this happen.

We have to tell ourselves and each other, ‘We can do this together.’ Because if we don’t, the downside is economically, politically, and from a health perspective, horribly devastating. It’s our responsibility. If we screw it up, we’ve screwed it up. Let’s get USF, as a major research university, to take the lead and demonstrate that we are one, and we’re one not just in terms of sports and academics and research. We’re thriving and growing as a community that recognizes that we’re on the same team against that enemy which is out to kill us and hurt us, and hurt our families and our communities. The sooner we can do that, the better chance we have of coming through this thing and demonstrating that we really are pretty cool.