A panel of experts with the COVID Local project spoke this month with Missoulians over Zoom about the importance of local leadership modeling consistent and effective COVID-19 guidelines, such as wearing a mask.
“You’re dealing with a huge amount of ambiguity, fear, challenges on every front,” panelist Cora Neumann said Friday to the local leaders and concerned citizens of Missoula tuning into the Effective COVID Response training webinar hosted by the University of Montana.
Neumann is a public health and public lands expert who founded We Are Montana, an organization focused on public health in Montana that has been providing COVID-19 resources and education during the pandemic.
Neumann’s father died when she was only 6 months old in a lumber mill accident, and the loss motivated her to focus her work on providing accessible quality healthcare to rural areas. She started Global First Ladies Alliance and has worked with over 40 first ladies around the world, including first ladies Laura Bush and Michelle Obama, to provide healthcare and social services to their communities.
In 2014 she worked with first ladies in West Africa to combat the Ebola outbreak and coordinate aid response. She recently ran for U.S. Senate in Montana but stepped down to support Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock’s campaign. The same week she stepped down from her campaign, the pandemic hit Montana.
“The fear is similar. Ebola was a very, very scary disease and very fatal,” Neumann said. “COVID is mysterious, even for public health experts. We’re still learning about it as we go.”
Neumann said misunderstanding, miscommunication and stigma around the virus is perpetuating fear and contributing to the spread. She said consistent vocalization of basic preventative measures like wearing a mask and washing hands is necessary to slow the spread.
“Montanans wear face coverings all the time, in the winter when it’s cold, when we’re fishing, (when) we’re skiing, hunting,” Neumann said. “It’s not that we don’t know how to do it, and it’s pretty simple.”
She said wearing a face covering reduces transmission by 60-80%, and she hopes more people will start wearing them as political leaders like President Donald Trump start to use and support the simple preventative measure themselves.
“I think it’s so important, and again it’s so simple. We don’t have to wait to make change,” said Jessica Bell, Senior Program Officer of Global Biological Programs and Policies at Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI) and manager of COVID Local.
Bell has a history of working in threat reduction and defense, with a focus on biohazards and infectious disease. She has consulted for Defense Threat Reduction Agency, Homeland Security’s Office of Health Affairs and the Office of the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction. She also worked on “Project Argus,” an initiative at Georgetown University focused on detecting catastrophic global biological events.
When the pandemic started spreading in the U.S. in March, Bell helped jump-start COVID Local. Her goal is to bring consistent information and guidance measures to local governments around the U.S. to help slow the spread of the novel coronavirus.
During the webinar, Bell and other panelists walked viewers through a part of COVID Local’s website, COVID Analysis and Mapping of Policies (AMP), with digestible graphs and maps depicting predicted models for coronavirus cases and deaths in each state depending on the policies of the state. Under the Policy Model page, visitors of the site can choose a state and adjust settings.
There is a “what if we had done nothing?” graph that depicts the likely cases and deaths that could have happened if states did nothing to slow the spread. In Montana, the graph predicted over half a million people would contract the virus and nearly 3,000 would die “if we had done nothing,” compared to the actual 2,900 cases and around 46 deaths.
“We’re in pain now, but this is the pay off,” Neumann said after seeing the statistics.
“This is the pain that’s been avoided,” said Jordan Schermerhorn, another panelist and research associate at the Center for Global Health Science and Security at Georgetown University Medical Center.
Neumann has helped COVID Local get in touch with leaders around Montana for similar webinars. They’ve met with the coronavirus task force and with a few different Native American tribal leaders. Both Neumann and Bell said they’re surprisingly pleased with how receptive everyone in Montana has been to the webinars.
Other topics covered in the panel included the metrics of how and when to start reopening, with a funnel graph depicting different phases of reopening, and how to protect vulnerable populations such as the elderly and people on Native American reservations.
Neumann and Bell said COVID Local is a valuable resource because the tools and infrastructure of the project can be used in the future for new infectious disease outbreaks as well, not just COVID-19. The metrics are already being used by the Harvard Global Health Institute and Rockefeller Center. It provides clear guidelines that can help local leaders find common ground on how to deal with disease outbreaks.
“I think we’re doing well — well obviously the spike is very alarming — but if we can continue to follow the mandates and make sure our most vulnerable communities are protected, we still have time,” Neumann said.
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