NEW JERSEY – Greek-American Perry Halkitis, PhD, MS, MPH, is Dean, Director of the Center for Health, Identity Behavior & Prevention Studies (CHIBPS), and Professor of Biostatistics and Urban-Global Public Health at the Rutgers School of Public Health in New Jersey. The son of Greek immigrant parents from Kos, the island of Hippocrates, Dr. Halkitis grew up in Astoria and attended St. Demetrios School. He offered his insights into the coronavirus pandemic in an interview with The National Herald on April 13.
TNH: How is the coronavirus pandemic different from past health crises?
Dr. Perry Halkitis: Well, I think that over the course of the last 40 years, we've had an indication that something like coronavirus would be in our midst. I mean, the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s certainly showed us that viruses can emerge and affect populations. Now, granted, AIDS was not as easily transmitted as coronavirus, but we saw with Ebola and we saw with SARS that there were possibilities that if we continue to live in this globalized world in which we live, that viruses that emerge in one part of the world would affect all parts of the world. And this is what we're seeing right now. We're seeing, you know, a global epidemic – aka a pandemic - that is the result of globalization and our inability to react effectively and quickly to it.
TNH: What should the public be aware of during the pandemic and the lockdown that they may not understand from the news reports and social media?
PH: I think the most important lesson for the public to understand about coronavirus is the following: Number one, it is highly communicable. Number two, that not everyone who becomes infected will end up on a respirator and die. In fact, for every 100 people who become infected, 40 will likely not have any symptoms, maybe more, maybe like 50 or 60. Another 40 or so will have mild to moderate symptoms that feel something like a flu or a cold or with a headache and earaches and gastrointestinal distress. And then 20 will have very severe symptoms that we see in the media. And of those, some will die, but not everyone who will become infected will demonstrate those very severe symptoms or any symptoms at all. The most important lesson to remember besides COVID-19 being highly communicable, is that even if somebody was feeling fine, they might be infected and they might be spreading the disease.
Another one of the big lessons that we learn from this epidemic is that humans don’t act in rational and calm ways. If we are going to effectively deal with pandemics in the future, we need tools that address human emotion.
TNH: Do you think that the government and the public health systems are doing enough for the most vulnerable, such as those with pre-existing health conditions?
PH: I mean, I think public health is all of a sudden but positioned in a very good place again, because we know that good science will get us through this ultimately. Now, what we're seeing with this pandemic, as we do with most health problems in the United States, is that those who are poor or those who are marginalized, people of color, those who don't have health insurance, those who live in areas that don't have good hospitals are the ones who are more likely to be affected by this disease. In fact, I've been studying a theory for some 20 years, called endemic theory that argues that when you see one health problem, you see multiple health problems. And so it's not surprising that individuals who are experiencing diabetes and hypertension and obesity and limited access to health care are also the ones that are more susceptible to those diseases. And I mean, is the government doing enough about that? Quite frankly, not. I mean, you see the disparity that's going on in the United States in terms of race and in terms of economic status and the fact that those who are less affluent have to continue to work makes them even more at risk. So the government, in my opinion, should have shut down the United States completely if we were to effectively eradicate this disease, at least for now.
TNH: How hopeful should the public be about antivirals and other medications that have been mentioned in the news?
PH: Well, you know, there's some really interesting anecdotal data that individuals who are living with HIV may be bestowed some protection because of their HIV status if they are taking antiviral therapy in terms of the other antivirals. I think, at this point, we don't have a very clear idea, and don't really think we understand the mechanics of this virus. I mean, it took us nearly a decade to understand how HIV functioned, and it took us nearly a decade and a half to develop effective treatments for HIV. Now, granted, this was over 40 years ago and science certainly has advanced since that time. But it's going to take some time to actually find effective medications. I think the ultimate solution to the problem we're facing is going to be a vaccine, and that's at least two years away.
TNH: Is the key to treating coronavirus in the antibodies of those who have recovered from COVID-19?
PH: The question has to do with plasma serum antibodies and absolutely plasma serum antibodies, serum antibodies for COVID-19, are probably one of the most effective tools we could have in continuing to fight this virus. You know, it's not a new idea. It's over 100 years old. It was used, you know, with the flu of 1918. The idea that you can take antibodies from one person and then confer those antibodies to another human being. The problem is in the United States, this is our big disaster, is that we don't know who's been infected. And this is a big mistake on the part of the government. A big mishandling on the part of the government. If we were able to provide an antibody test to every American, we would know very quickly how widespread the disease is. We'd be able to more effectively manage people going back to work, would be able more effectively to develop antibodies. But because the government has completely mismanaged this whole situation, the federal government, we find ourselves in extremely challenging position. And so, yeah, this antibody serum is certainly a possibility, but one that should be happening much more quickly.
TNH: Greece seems to be doing well with its measures and lockdown, compared to other nations, but is it still too early in the pandemic to judge whether the measures are working either there or in the U.S., for example?
PH: I mean, Greece is doing very well. The fact of the matter is that their government was thoughtful and shut down and so, the virus was able to be contained. But I will also say one more thing, and I think this is really critical to remember when we think about what's going on in New York. New York is a major metropolitan area with millions and millions of people who live in very close proximity to each other. Greece is a country of 10 million people where people do not live so close to each other except in Athens and other major areas. So, the possibility of a transmission of virus is much greater in places like New York. Still, even though the population is smaller in Greece, and more wide spread, the fact is that the Greek government took a very strong stand on social distancing and their response has been effective. We're not seeing in Greece what we saw in Italy, so that's a testament to a government that, uses logic, reason, and science to make decisions, which is not always the case for our government here in the United States.