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Why 2 Epidemiologists Stopped Working On COVID-19 Research

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

Now we're going to hear from two epidemiologists. When the coronavirus hit, they put aside their work and stepped up to help tackle one of the greatest public health challenges of our time. But after months of frustration and political interference, one left her job, and the other ended her COVID-19 research altogether.

Dr. Caroline Buckee from Harvard University studies disease transmission, with a focus on malaria. Last spring, she moved her entire research team to work on COVID. They focused on mapping how the virus was spreading and what could slow it. And at first, they felt they had a real contribution to make, but that changed.

CAROLINE BUCKEE: For a lot of us, we became gradually quite disillusioned with the interaction between science and policymaking. And despite the fact that we continued to advocate for things that were increasingly clear - so, you know, the epidemiological facts that underlie transmission, the way transmission happens, the types of high-risk behaviors - we've known that for many, many months. And so the messaging wasn't changing.

We were continuing to push for testing, for improved surveillance, trying to make sure that, you know, indoor dining and things were controlled. And it seemed as if the policies didn't reflect what we were trying to say. It felt to me as if the expert voices, especially women and scientists of color, just were not being listened to. They weren't being invited into the room to discuss policies. They weren't being represented in the media. At some point, I just hit a wall and decided that I would do more good working on other infectious diseases, like malaria.

EILEEN WHITE: I'm sitting here nodding my head and feeling it because it is exhausting.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Eileen White has a similar story. Last June, she joined the newly formed health department in Fishers, Ind., as the city's only epidemiologist. But as coronavirus numbers went up, White said she was increasingly sidelined, and she eventually resigned. I asked her why.

WHITE: I left because of the influence of the mayor in the recommendations coming out of the health department.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Can you explain what happened briefly?

WHITE: We developed community metrics to help guide our community health around risk and school closings and openings. The metrics said we were in one stage, and the mayor decided that we were in another and told the schools to open fully when that's not what the metrics indicated. There are many of us that have felt powerless, silenced. The data may indicate one thing. The policy decisions that are made at the top by the politicians and even some of the directors do not follow data.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: To both of you who have given your life's work to combating disease, I'm wondering what you feel and think now, seeing where we are at in this country.

BUCKEE: Well, it's hard not to be utterly dismayed. This didn't have to be this way. The fact that it was so politicized - and my biggest fear is that we won't learn from this, that we will take the vaccine and we will just maintain the status quo. And that's not going to be good enough.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Eileen White, you faced a public backlash when you were trying to help guide your community. And Dr. Buckee, you've seen writ large how scientists and medical professionals, for that matter, have been disparaged. That must have been painful.

WHITE: It is painful. And it's also - it shakes your foundation. It reveals - I think a lot of people, whether you are an epidemiologist or in public health or just living in neighborhoods, we all feel like what we thought we stood for or the community we thought we lived in may not be what we thought it was. For me in particular, there is a lot about the reaction that is in response to my gender, and there is a lot about the reaction that is coming from a particular subset without any training and without evidence or data to back things up.

BUCKEE: I think this era of disinformation and global polarization of people's media and information intake is really dangerous, and we need to address this really quickly. And I agree with Eileen that ultimately, it comes down to data literacy and making sure that people are taught in school to think for themselves and to take evidence and weigh it and to start to trust data and evidence. I left Twitter this summer because, to me, the noise and chaos of all of the discussion - it was very hard to have a nuanced conversation about science. It felt like a middle school playground, and I just didn't have any interest in taking part anymore and would prefer to just focus on my work.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What message do you have? What would you say to people who are listening?

WHITE: Though we have seen some difficult times, we have to learn from this. We have to advocate and speak out in science, in epidemiology. We have to be comfortable in educating our neighbors and in valuing the health of our communities.

BUCKEE: I really wish that people could start talking to each other across political lines even if you disagree. We need to start understanding what the people around us believe, and we need to start breaking down the silos that have been created by political divides and media divides in terms of what media people listen to. So I think the only way we can do that is, on a local level, people need to start being forgiving of their neighbors who may disagree with them and really trying to understand how we can move things forward together.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's Dr. Caroline Buckee, a professor of public health at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, and Eileen White, a nurse and epidemiologist who now runs a Facebook page called "Public Health Is Your Job, Too."

Thank you both very much.

WHITE: Thank you.

BUCKEE: Thank you.

WHITE: Could I add a thanks from my own self? I have been struggling a lot, and this gave me some hope.

BUCKEE: Well, it's really nice to meet you, Eileen, and I really - good luck with everything you do.

WHITE: Thank you. You, too. Thanks. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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