"Vaccine Gives Me Control Over My Own Health, My Family’s Health"

With Marin County education workers now eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine, Dominican University of California epidemiologist Dr. Michaela George, assistant professor in the Global Public Health department, wasted no time signing up for an appointment.

“Both of the vaccines currently available (Pfizer and Moderna) have been shown to be extremely effective at preventing severe illness,” she says. “While the initial reports were around 95%, the remaining 5% included only one report of severe COVID symptoms and zero hospitalizations.”

Once fully vaccinated, George said she will be highly unlikely to spread the illness even if she comes into contact with the virus. This means she can actively protect her loved ones.

“There is so little we can control with the virus, but getting the vaccine gives me more control over my own health and my family’s health.”

While a recent Gallup poll shows that Americans may be more willing than ever to get vaccinated — willingness increased from 50% in September 2020 to 71% in late February — George is concerned about the politicization of vaccines and public health.

“Vaccines should not be political,” she says. “Vaccines are a necessary tool in fighting this pandemic.”

Jaclynn Davis, an adjunct who teaches in the Global Public Health department, said getting vaccinated felt "not so much like an individual experience that would keep me personally safe, but more of a fundamentally historic moment of hope, like the start of climbing out of a dark chapter."

"There was a sense of feeling connected to the other people in line, to the receptionist, and to the nurse who administered the vaccine, and knowing that they were all a part of this movement as well," Davis says.

George notes that these behaviors and feelings are unlikely to change until 75-80% of the population is vaccinated.

“I will still wear a mask on campus when I teach,” George says. “I will still practice heightened hand hygiene, and I will still try to meet friends for a walk outside and keep my distance.”

Dr. George, who earned an MPH with a concentration in Epidemiology from Boston University School of Public Health and a PhD in Epidemiology from the University of California, Berkeley, is among the GPH faculty experts who have served as sources for both regional and national reporters covering the global pandemic.

A June New York Times article surveyed more than 500 epidemiologists — many belonging to the Society for Epidemiologic Research — asking when they expect to resume 20 activities of daily life “assuming the pandemic and response unfold as they expect.” These activities included shaking hands, hugging, attending sporting or cultural events, and flying.

When answering the question about flying, George noted that she would be willing to travel by air — as long as she took precautions to ensure her own safety.

“I would bring a blanket or sheet to sit on, my own food and water, multiple masks (in case one gets uncomfortable), gloves, hand sanitizer, and wipes,” she says.

In December, The New York Times updated its survey, asking epidemiologists about the impact of the COVID vaccine.

When asked about the impact of the vaccine on her own behavior, George noted: “Vaccinations have become a political issue in this country. I can only control my own actions. So once I was vaccinated, I would feel more comfortable changing my risk profile in small ways.”

Dominican is one of a handful of colleges in the U.S. offering a degree in Global Public Health to undergraduate students. Global public health is a burgeoning field for undergraduate education, and Dominican’s faculty are continuing to draw on the global pandemic as a real-life lesson for their budding epidemiologists, involving their students in research examining issues around both public health, global health, and public reactions to the pandemic.

In a VICE magazine article that appeared a week after The New York Times article, George was asked to comment on the safety procedures consumers should take when flying. George noted that while the airlines have done a lot to ensure passenger safety, passengers must take further precautions to keep themselves and their companions safe.

“Don't travel if you feel sick. Cancelling your trip because you don't feel well should be common practice,” she says. “Wear a mask when you are inside the airport and the plane. These are easy changes, and should become common practice when we take flights in the future.”

George also was interviewed by San Francisco’s Bay City News Service for a story that ran in several regional publications, including the San Francisco Chronicle’s SFGate, focused on local preschools planning to reopen. George noted that preschool children are less likely than older kids to transmit the virus to other kids and adults.

"What we can tell, at this point, is that even though some young children are testing positive for COVID-19, they do not seem to be spreading it to other children or adults," George says. "We don't know why because we don't have enough information on the virus yet to really understand that."

Earlier last year – just prior to the State of California’s shelter-in-place notice  — Dr. Brett Bayles, Assistant Professor of Global Public Health in the School of Health and Natural Sciences, talked with KTVU-TV Fox about how he was turning coronavirus into a teachable moment on global public health.

"These kinds of public health threats (emerging infectious diseases that could become pandemics) are going to become the new normal and we need to be prepared for that," Bayles told KTVU when a reporter visited his Environmental Public Health classroom. "If you really want to affect change and save lives and reduce the burden of disease then figure out why this is happening in the first place so that hopefully you can predict and prevent future events."

Bayles focuses on planetary health and the epidemiology of emerging infectious diseases. Planetary health, which focuses on the connections between the health of ecosystems and the health of people, provides an effective framework for better understanding and predicting the root causes of pandemics. A manuscript by Bayles examining the role of agriculture, indigenous territories, and protected areas in Costa Rica recently was published in The Lancet Global Health, with some of his undergraduate students listed as co-authors. A recent article in the Marin Independent Journal noted that Dominican had recently introduced a timely new minor in planetary health — an emerging academic discipline that’s receiving attention these days due to COVID-19.

Meanwhile, several Bay Area news outlets, including KCBS radio, KGO-TV ABCTelemundo, and the Marin Independent Journal, talked with GPH faculty and students about the new public health contact tracer training course. The course was developed by Dr. Patti Culross, Chair of the Global Public Health department, in partnership with the County of Marin. The one-credit course is designed to train Dominican students to work as contact tracers as part of the public health response to the pandemic.

“It is a century-old public health strategy for communicable disease control. The course is open to all students, with a preference for juniors and seniors,” Culross says.

“This pandemic is a once-in-a-lifetime experience – hopefully. Obviously, there is no way we could ever have planned such a formative learning opportunity,” she adds. “Students will have meaningful participation in an important public health function and in an event that has so unsettled and shaped everyone's lives.”

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