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Public health expert: The pandemic is here — but compassion and common sense will get us through

Salon interviewed Dr. Timothy Brewer, a professor of epidemiology at the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health and of medicine at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA, for a Q&A about public health best practices in response to the pandemic, including common sense actions like emergency paid leave legislation. 

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Date: 
Sunday, March 15, 2020

In recent weeks a number of alarming stories have circulated suggesting that "You're Likely to Get the Coronavirus," as an article from the Atlantic put it. That story reported that Harvard epidemiologist Marc Lipsitch predicted that "some 40 to 70 percent of people around the world will be infected" within the coming year, though "many will have mild disease, or may be asymptomatic." What's more, a comment in The Lancet calculated that "approximately 60% of the population would become infected."

Having written about global warming since the 1990s, I'm profoundly accustomed to scientists warning us of dire things to come, while politicians and the media blithely ignore them. So I certainly didn't want to do that myself. But this time felt different. COVID-19 is a horrific public health threat. It's entirely possible that hundreds of thousands of people will die, conceivably millions. But at the same time, China's infection rate has been plummeting, and nearby nations like Taiwan and Singapore never saw an infection spike to begin with. South Korea's infection rate was declining as well. Here in the U.S., the Trump administration's bungling has been disastrous, but local public health responses have been vigorous, despite the fact that we're flying blind from lack of widespread testing. 

So I wanted to get a sober assessment from a knowledgeable expert — not to dismiss worst-case fears, but to help put them into perspective, and shed light on how we might best avoid both the very real dangers of the virus itself, and additional dangers from over- or under-responding in various different ways. So, I reached out to Dr. Timothy Brewer, at UCLA's Fielding School of Public Health, who currently serves as chair of the board of directors for the Consortium of Universities for Global Health. The interview was conducted by phone on March 12, and has been edited for clarity and length.

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