Roby Brock, host of Talk Business & Politics [0:00]:
Dr. Cam Patterson has been leading UAMS through the state’s tragic and now long-running COVID-19 pandemic. We sat down to discuss where we are and where we’re going.
Well Arkansas — particularly northwest Arkansas — is a hot spot for COVID-19 right now. UAMS put out some new projections just within the last week about what you could see happening potentially under the trajectory that we’re on. How bad might it get?
UAMS Chancellor Dr. Cam Patterson [0:27]:
Well, you know, we have been making projections. And our team at the Boozman College of Public Health is projecting that if things don’t change — meaning if we don’t increase social isolation, if we don’t get more rigorous with masking — that we will see probably over a hundred thousand active cases in the state of Arkansas somewhere in the late September mid-October time frame.
Roby Brock [0:57]
The governor has called on a lot of people to take personal responsibility. You’ve talked about it a lot. A lot of business leaders, a lot of influential cultural people in the state, such as football coaches, basketball coaches, have all pushed this mask request — I think is the proper word to use. It does not seem like people are adhering to it though. And we still have the problems of the numbers continue to rise despite the push to do that. Is it possible for us to practice enough personal responsibility to end this pandemic?
Dr. Patterson [1:30]:
Well, it is possible for masking to work. We’ve seen that across the world, not just within the 50 states.
And northwest Arkansas I think would be an example of seeing success with rigorous masking. They were a hot spot. They’re really turning the corner. And you’re seeing the number of new cases going down in northwest Arkansas as ordinances have been passed in that area that have prescribed masking.
The challenge is that if one town does it and the next town doesn’t, how do you get somebody to say, “Well, why should I do it if a person who lives a few miles away from me isn’t required to do it?” And that’s why it’s so difficult just to rely on people doing good things to make this work. And I think that that’s why we need more vigorous federal support for masking and we need to really think about a statewide strategy.
Roby Brock [2:43]:
I’m gonna assume here, so you correct me if I’m wrong on this, but I have to assume that you are discouraged by how politicized wearing a mask has become in this country and in this state. You’re a student to politics. You’ve been around it long enough to know. Why is it so difficult for us to have this scientific conversation about the safety of a mask, yet we still can’t mandate it?
Dr. Patterson [3:07]:
You know, Roby, you know the answer to that question is I don’t know. Never in my life has a medical issue been so highly politicized. I trained during the beginning phases of the HIV epidemic. And granted, there was some politicization of that, but that didn’t get in the way of establishing what best practices were. And to be frank, you didn’t have to be a Democrat or Republican to choose to wear a condom in those days. And why we have turned this into such a messy situation where the facts and the science are being obscured is something that we will study for decades.
Roby Brock [3:56]:
I’m gonna give you a scenario here that we’re gonna send a couple hundred thousand children into some hundreds of school buildings around the state in a few weeks, and they’re gonna come back home to their parents and grandparents. They’re gonna be around teachers and staff. Does this seem like a recipe for a disaster for you? Because that’s what we’re about to walk into.
Dr. Patterson [4:18]:
Well, it depends on how you do it. And I think we have to weigh the benefits of education and social experience versus the risk.
With the young children the risk of infection is low. The risk of complications is very low. And actually, the risk of transmissibility — if you’re a young child — from a young child to an adult is low.
Countries in Europe have opened elementary schools with social distancing, with appropriate controls, and that has seemed to work. So, I think that that’s something that, if done right, with discipline, with all of us saying that this is the right way to do it, and embracing a safe way, it can probably be done. Now, it’s not been done while a pandemic is on the upswing and that’s the big challenge that we face.
It’s not the elementary schools that are worried about. I worry about higher education now that’s a completely different ballgame.
Roby Brock [5:21]:
Tell me your thoughts on that.
Dr. Patterson [5:22]:
Well, you’ve got people coming from all over the country, rather than just within their own community. The professors tend to be older than elementary school teachers, so the teachers in higher education tend to be at greater risk. And kids on campuses do crazy things at night.
Roby Brock [5:47]:
You’re not referring to your college experience.
Dr. Patterson [5:50]:
No, I’m referring to yours, Roby. I’ve heard about that.
And a college campus — we saw what happened on the cruise ships with COVID-19. Right? Now, a college campus is like a cruise ship where everybody disembarks into a different town every night. Imagine that scenario.
Roby Brock [6:10]:
We’re seeing some things shut down already. Summer camps have been a problem. We have seen some sports try to restart. And I think just this past week, the Clarksville School District had a enough people tested positive with COVID-19 there to stop their football, basketball and baseball.
Dr. Patterson [6:28]:
Catholic High School had a COVID-19 positive patient. They shut down football.
Roby Brock [6:32]:
Is that what you anticipate will happen this fall if there are not proper protocols in place that are followed?
Dr. Patterson [6:40]:
The lessons are straightforward. Cruise ships, nursing homes, prisons, summer camps, everywhere people congregate, that’s where we’re going to have outbreaks. And we’ve got to accept that that is what is going to happen if we can’t maintain the core principles of good testing, social distancing and rigorous wearing of masks in situations where people are congregating.
Roby Brock [7:10]:
Let’s talk briefly about testing. Because we are again lagging in test kits — from everybody that I talked to. There’s a lot of delays in getting the tests back. It can be days, which leads to not being able to isolate cases because you don’t know who’s got this COVID-19 virus quickly enough. What’s it going to take to get ahead of the curve on testing?
Dr. Patterson [7:38]:
It’s hard because once you get behind, it’s tough to catch up. And frankly, I think that the failure with testing has been a failure of having an adequate federal response. And until we get a nationwide testing algorithm in place, with support for the pipeline, the reagents that’s necessary to get the testing done, we’re just always going to be behind. Individual states can’t do that. And we unfortunately had a failure at the federal level, of getting adequate testing and adequate PPE and an adequate message about personal safety.
Roby Brock [8:24]:
I think you’ve given us the formula for success here, if we’re gonna get ahead of it, but it’s not happening obviously.
How frequently are you going to be revisiting the modeling that you’re doing here in the state of Arkansas to give updates on what you project happening?
Dr. Patterson [8:39]:
That’s a great question.
So, we’re getting in the rhythm of updating our projections every two weeks. The results of our projections will come out on the Tuesday of every other week. And we plan on doing a video that provides the lay explanation of the updated results so that people can understand and not get bogged down by the scientific jargon.
We want to be transparent with our results. But we also want to emphasize that these are projections. They’re like hurricane forecasts. When the forecast all starts line up on your city, you’ve got to be concerned. But there is always going to be differences in terms of how big is the wave and exactly at what point will it crest. But you don’t want to be underneath the wave of it’s cresting on your town.