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Update on the COVID-19 Pandemic at UW

In just the span of a week since our last post about the COVID-19 pandemic in Seattle, much as changed, in and out of school. In light of the rapid progression of changes to the response to COVID-19, we are going to post updates about our experiences as students living in Seattle. As we are not experts on virology and epidemiology, please look for information about the disease from resources such as the Center for Disease Control and Prevention and the WHO.  To get a great summary of the details of COVID-19 (science, epidemiology, prevention, testing, drugs, government, recommendations), you can check out this powerpoint presentation from Dr. Lin's neurobiology lab at Stanford University. There’s also a bonus hand sanitizer recipe ;)


Ayumi: My lab has, for the most part, closed down. No new experiments are being planned and we are having a meeting on Zoom this Monday to discuss the future. As a lab that studies treatment in infectious disease, there is some talk of using our skills to contribute to COVID-19 research. Recently, an anti-malarial drug called chloroquine has been suggested as a treatment for COVID-19. As I am on an anti-malarial drug delivery project, I am highly interested in these results. I feel stuck, like many grad students who work in a wet lab. I'm itching to get back in there, but I know I need to stay away as much as possible. I'm also experiencing a bit of FOMO. Or is it FOMOOISD-fear of missing out on important scientific discovery? The world is facing this watershed moment and I'm just at home, binge-watching Brooklyn 99. I've always wondered what the average person was doing and thinking during historical moments, and it's really hitting me that I am that average person, and I'm doing: not much of anything. If you've read my previous posts, you know I am most interested in infectious disease research. I am not advanced enough in my career and knowledge to be of any use during this crisis, which stinks! But I will do my part to mitigate risk for myself and those around me.

Phuong: I have now officially completed my rotation project for the winter quarter! I came in once last week to clean up my bench and turn in data that I collected over the course of the quarter. I am planning to speak to the PI of the lab for my next rotation next week. Dr. Nance has been working on developing a plan to transition the experimental researchers in her lab to ‘work from home’ status. It is very likely that UW will start closing ‘non-essential’ research labs, so I will be discussing with Dr. Nance on how this will affect my rotation. At this point, most labs are waiting in limbo of any changes that can suddenly happen (there has been a lot of that lately). We are told that if a complete lockdown of campus does happen, labs will most likely only have 48-72 hours notice, so PIs are getting prepared for the worst. From what I've heard, many grad students are cutting their experiments short and preparing the lab to be closed until further notice. Of course, I will keep you updated on how this goes.


Ayumi: Things have turned upside down! My partner is in a commercial diving program. Think less wet suits and coral reefs, more dry suits, hot water suits, and 100 ft+ dives in the cold Seattle waters. He had 2 weeks left in his 7-month program at the Divers Institute of Technology. On Monday, his school made the difficult decision to shut down until the end of April, at minimum. My partner was planning on having a job by then. His living stipend was set to end with the end of the program, and so we worry about money. Luckily, my program provides a fantastic stipend, so if worse comes to worst, I can cover our expenses until he finishes his program.

Lake Washington

Life isn't all that bad; we downloaded Sims 4 and take walks by the lake in the evening. We are so lucky to have a beautiful lake within walking distance of our apartment! I can go and not touch a single thing or speak to another human being for hours. The sun has been coming out every day this week, as if the sky knew Seattleites needed some light in these dark times. I'm taking this time to slow down and enjoy the little things, because I know things will be hectic as soon as I'm allowed back in the lab.

Not everyone can say the same. Three of my siblings work in food and beverage, and their restaurants have had to close their doors indefinitely. They worry about money, and they worry about if they will have jobs when all of this ends. My siblings have worked incredibly hard to establish themselves in their careers. It breaks my heart to see toll this virus is taking on them. People around the world are facing the same dilemma.

I've been told my family is taking new steps to reduce contact with our mom. She has been self isolating to reduce her chances of getting the virus (also because she has a chronic cough due to medication and she is scared of being harassed for Coughing While Asian). But humans are social creatures and she needs social interaction! So when they visit her, they wash their hands as soon as they get inside the door and stay at least 6 feet away from her. No more hugs goodbye, but at least they can still see her!

Ayumi's mom and little brother at his birthday celebration.

Phuong: Since completing my lab rotation, I have been doing my best to self-isolate and stay in my apartment. This past week social venues such as theaters, gyms, bars, clubs, and dance halls have been ordered to close for preventative measures. Seattle restaurants have been asked to close their dine-in services and only allow take-out or delivery. As we mentioned in our last post, this pandemic has hit especially hard for local businesses and service workers. I continue to order  take-out several times a week to support these businesses as much as I can. The gym at my apartment has also closed down to prevent too many people congregating in the same room, so I decided to purchase a bike trainer stand. You can attach your bike to this stand and, well, bike! Different levels of resistance are achieved by adjusting the height of the stand. I think this is a good option for someone who owns a bike and wants to exercise at home, as it doesn’t take up too much room. You can move the stand around easily and set up a platform to watch TV while working out!  Of course I’d much rather bike outside, but this is a good alternative to keep myself sane. Grocery stores in my area have started to limit the quantity of select products for purchase and have started to instigate a quota on the number of people shopping, so there are queues outside the stores. Whether this is the best idea I'm not sure about, there are definitely changes being made.

Now, let’s talk data about the COVID-19 burden in Seattle. Something I’ve been really interested in understanding is the impact that social distancing has on the spread of infection. There are nationwide policies reducing social contact with others and encouraging residents to self-isolate. But is this actually helpful? Here is a great working paper written by several scientists from UW Institute for Disease Modeling and the Gates Foundation. This paper describes how social distancing impacts the number of infections and the number of deaths in the area. The estimated doubling time of the local epidemic for the epidemic is 6.2 days, and this is consistent across research from multiple countries around the world. The model suggests that we need to reduce social contact by 50-75% to significantly flatten the curve of cumulative infection.  In the baseline scenario across multiple simulations, there is estimated to be roughly 25,000 people infected by April 7, but this number declines to roughly 9,700 total infections for a 25% reduction in contact, to 4,800 for a 50% reduction, and only 1,700 for a 75% reduction. Furthermore, by looking at the estimated active infections, only the 75% scenario shows the number of infections getting smaller over time.

You can read further for more information on projected outcomes of the COVID-19 outbreak in the Seattle area!

I just heard of the passing of a UW faculty member in the Department of Pathology named Stephen Schwartz. He is often considered as the godfather of vascular biology, and while I have never met him in person I acknowledge that he has really transformed the tissue engineering field. As we move through this pandemic together, please be mindful of each other and continue to have empathy towards those who may have loved ones who are at risk.


Phuong: On March 18th, the President of UW announced that spring quarter classes are all required to be held online. A required seminar class for our program has already been canceled due to difficulties with invited speakers being unable to travel to campus, and I suspect many lab classes will also be canceled. Though I believe this is a good call to further reduce social interaction on college campuses, this will definitely take some time to transition into full-time online learners. UW is emptier than I’ve ever seen it!

As the situation is rapidly changing, please remember to treat each other with kindness and continue to follow health and safety guidelines outlined by the CDC. There is no need to stockpile--this is not a zombie apocalypse! It starts with basic safety measures that you can follow, such as reducing social interactions and washing your hands. Reducing the spread of COVID-19 infection depends on all of us.

Ayumi: I couldn't have said it better than Phuong!

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