COVID-19 Conversations A Webinar SeriesEven when a vaccine is available, immunizing the country — and the world — against the coronavirus will take years. Until then, it will take a combination of strategies, not a single solution, to combat and control COVID-19.

That was the main takeaway from “Until We Have a Vaccine: Surveillance, Testing and Contact Tracing,” the latest installment in the COVID-19 Conversations webinar series, hosted by APHA and the National Academy of Medicine.

Throughout the webinar, first broadcast last week, the panel of experts stressed that a strong and well-supported public health infrastructure is essential to the pandemic response. Efforts against COVID-19, they said, must leverage technology, empower local communities and engage and educate trusted messengers.

“If there’s anything we need to take away from this pandemic, it is the fact that we need to desperately upgrade our technology,” said panelist Michael Osterholm, PhD, MPH, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, noting that outdated technology is hindering COVID-19 surveillance efforts. 

Osterholm addressed issues such as limited testing, inconsistent data reporting, a lack of integrated reporting systems and hesitancy among the public to participate in contact tracing. He recommended adopting a national standardized approach to COVID-19 surveillance that accounts for incoming data by the end of 2020.

Panelist Martin Burke, MD, the May and Ving Lee professor for chemical innovation at the University of Illinois, discussed the university's scalable COVID-19 testing program, SHIELD, for quickly detecting cases and stopping outbreaks. The three-part comprehensive program includes developing an effective saliva-based test, frequently testing students and staff and rapidly communicating test results.

The results were astonishing: “We almost eradicated COVID-19 from our faculty, staff and students,” said Burke. 

He emphasized that “testing is not a silver bullet,” as controlling the virus’ spread must be done in concert with mitigation strategies such as social distancing, mask usage, contact tracing and community engagement.

Due to the holistic approach and direct communication with health officials, Burke said the SHIELD team is “hopeful that this is going to be an example of how a community can stay open safely.”

Panelists also stressed the importance of building trust in local health departments and partnering with trusted people and organizations already working in the community. 

“We put more resources for testing in and at our local firehouses,” said LaQuandra Nesbitt, MD, MPH, director of the District of Columbia Department of Health. “This is a place that people trust.” 

Nesbitt discussed the city’s testing strategy of hiring contact tracers from the community, partnering with faith-based institutions and issuing grants to local health and social service organizations. The efforts were critical to building community engagement for a successful contact tracing program, she said.

Watch recordings from all COVID-19 Conversations webinars, including “Until We Have a Vaccine: Surveillance, Testing and Contact Tracing,” at COVID19Conversations.org. Visit the site to sign up for updates about upcoming webinar topics. 

Written by Kailey Shanks