On one hand, “this is the most teachable moment the world has had about the importance of public health in 100 years,” said Dr. Tom Frieden, former director of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “On the other hand, we’re really at risk of heading full steam ahead into the neglect phase of the ‘panic-neglect cycle.’ “
Another pandemic seems inevitable. We “live in an age of pandemics,” said Dr. Larry Brilliant, an epidemiologist and CEO of Pandefense Advisory, an interdisciplinary network of experts engaged in pandemic response.
“The investment in basic and clinical biomedical research allowed us to, with unprecedented speed, develop highly effective vaccines that essentially, (we never would) have imagined you could have done it that quickly,” he added. “We need to keep making those investments, not only in science … but in the public health infrastructure.” We must also remember “what it means to have a public health system that was not able to respond in a manner that was matching to the challenge that we’re facing,” he said.
“What we don’t want is to have our children, and perhaps our grandchildren, forget what we’ve been through.”
Whether we’re going to apply lessons from the current pandemic remains to be seen, Frieden said, but doing so is key to ending that cycle, so that outbreaks don’t become pandemics with countless consequences — including millions of lives lost and drastic effects on health care, mental health, the economy, education, relationships and careers.
Much of the preparedness burden lies in the hands of public health institutions, but the public can play a vital role. Here’s what some of the top infectious disease experts think both can do to help:
1. Increase public health funding
“So we really do need to up our game in terms of protecting people in this country and around the world,” said Frieden, who is also CEO of Resolve to Save Lives, an independent organization focused on preventing epidemics and cardiovascular disease. “You can’t make a safer US without making a safer world.”
“Because of that, oftentimes a lot of the research dollars and a lot of the research mental capacity goes to the side of treatments,” Corbett added. “We want to be able to really shift that way of thinking.”
More funding is also needed for staples such as having enough testing when the time comes, Brilliant said, “so that we won’t get behind the eight ball like we were” with Covid-19.
“We have to think about pandemic preparedness as really strengthening the public health system worldwide,” he added. “Right now, it’s not clear that Congress is going to appropriate the amount of money that makes sense. Because for 80% of the country, they feel like — and legitimately feel — that their (Covid-19) risk has passed.”
2. Protect nature
Pandemic prevention also means “we need better systems to protect nature so that nature doesn’t come back to bite us,” Frieden said.
Thinking about environmental health as part of our health is critical for reducing virus spillover, Johnson said.
3. Act early and quickly
Infectious disease experts detecting outbreaks of a new disease early and addressing them quickly while they’re small is key to preventing a larger emergency.
4. Improve public health communication
We have better tools to address infectious diseases than we’ve ever had, but we’re also more vulnerable than we’ve ever been, partly because of a widespread lack of trust between communities, governments and health care systems, Frieden said.
“You cannot surge trust in an emergency,” Frieden added. “You have to have it there as baseline.”
Communication about the pandemic has “been challenging,” said Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the CDC, at Life Itself. “We’ve been divided against a common foe, which has been this pandemic virus.”
“We have had to make decisions with imperfect data and imperfect times, but if we didn’t make a decision at that time, that would have been a decision itself,” she added. “We need to follow and understand the best science that we have at the time the decision is being made.”
Walensky plans to spend much of her time working on ways to make public awareness part of pandemic surveillance, she said.
“You have to be consistent, always stick with the facts and the evidence and the data. That was one of the issues that obviously arose when I was part of the Coronavirus taskforce in the prior administration,” Fauci said.
5. Fight misinformation
There’s a saying that a lie can travel halfway around the world before the truth has even put on its boots. “It’s been very challenging for health, for doctors and others to deal with viral misinformation, which spreads even faster than Omicron,” Frieden said.
Pandemic misinformation can influence people’s motivations, beliefs and decision-making concerning their health, politics, the environment and more.
6. Support your own health
Individual resilience is another key factor in preventing serious illness and deaths during pandemics, Frieden said.
“One of the reasons Covid has killed so many people is there were so many people who were vulnerable to health problems,” Frieden said.
“Getting healthy doesn’t mean denying ourselves things we want to do,” Frieden said, “but rather figuring out what are healthy things we love to do and doing more of them.”
Correction: This story previously misstated the current structure of the organization Resolve to Save Lives.