Basic precautions like social distancing and mask-wearing can once again flatten the curve of COVID-19’s spread amid a surge in cases, the immediate past president of the American Medical Association told the Rotary Club of Buckhead July 20.

“Listen, we reopened too soon in some areas, and it wasn’t only when but what we reopened,” said Dr. Patrice Harris, an Atlanta psychiatrist who headed the Chicago-based AMA until June. While much remains unknown about COVID-19, she said, the effectiveness of some precautions has been certain since the influenza pandemic of 1918.

Dr. Patrice Harris, former president of the American Medical Association, speaks to the Rotary Club of Buckhead in a July 20 virtual meeting.

“The science is clear. It’s been clear for over a century” on social distancing as effective, said Harris, adding that she prefers the term “physical distancing” because safe social contact remains important for mental health.

Even after scientists get COVID-19 under control, she said, some distancing changes could remain a fact of life. Before the pandemic, she said, there was talk in the medical community of the dangers of hand-shaking as a greeting.

“… I have been saying for several years quietly, because I didn’t want to get the blowback, that we should probably stop shaking hands,” said Harris. “I think now that’s likely to happen. We’ll have to figure out customs, and we’re smart people in this country. We can figure out something else to show respect and to greet warmly.”

Like Emory University President Claire Sterk, who spoke to the Buckhead Rotary about COVID-19 a week earlier, Harris said that racial and economic disparities in healthcare are a major pandemic challenge. Harris said that Black and Brown communities are disproportionately affected by the pandemic “due to longstanding structural racism, bias” and related issues.

“In Atlanta we have not been afraid… to have these conversations,” she said. “So I see Atlanta leading. These conversations are difficult, but someone has to lead.”

Equity factors into such major issues as school reopenings, where many districts and individual schools can’t afford the same protections as others. Harris said children “absolutely” should return to classrooms in a safe manner.

“Public trust is key” in the battle against the pandemic, said Harris, which means being clear about what is unknown as well as dispelling myths and misinformation. She cited an incorrect rumor circulating in the Black community that Black people are immune to the disease.

Several of the more than 75 attendees in the virtual meeting asked Harris to clarify many types of information. Mask-wearing was a common topic.

Harris reassured one attendee that he is likely fine going maskless on an outdoor walk when he is not around other people, but cautioned that he should keep the mask handy in case someone gets close. Asked by another attendee about people wearing masks improperly, exposing their nose or mouth, she said good use is important. But, she added, “We all have to give ourselves a break during this” for small slip-ups. The overall consistent effort is what is important, she indicated.

“It’s about not one thing,” but using all precautions, including distancing and hand-washing, she said.

One attendee asked Harris about the state of knowledge on children being low-risk for catching or spreading the diseases — a factor that underlies much of the school reopening planning. Harris said it is important to not view children as a single group. Those 10 and younger might be lower-risk for spreading COVID-19 due to their smaller lung capacity, she said, but those ages 10 to 19 could be similar to adults.

“We just don’t have a lot of data” on children, COVID-19 and schools, she said, especially since school districts were among the first institutions to shut down as the pandemic hit.

Harris addressed some alternative tactics about the pandemic. She said there is no evidence that supplements like elderberry and zinc help to prevent COVID-19 infection. “There’s no shortcut to a better immune system,” she said, advising healthy eating and good sleep instead.

And she spoke skeptically of the governmental response to the pandemic in Sweden, which used fewer shutdown and distancing measures than most other countries. She noted that compared to the U.S., Sweden is much smaller and has a much less diverse population, and also has universal healthcare for those who do get sick. Regardless, she said, Sweden is now seeing both a “significant loss of life” and economic problems.

Another concern for the rapidly spreading virus is whether it will evolve new strains that could be harder to fight. Harris said there is some evidence of mutated strains, but not a “material mutation” that would change the approach to combatting the pandemic.

Meanwhile, research into treatments and vaccines is underway. “We are not helpless against this disease,” said Harris.

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John Ruch

John Ruch is an Atlanta-based journalist. Previously, he was Managing Editor of Reporter Newspapers.