Letter from the Department Chair


As everyone knows, we are in the midst of a growing pandemic involving (COVID-19) and, lacking adequate testing or a coherent government response, people and organizations are instituting policies that have included instituting prohibitions against travel, discouraging attendance at (or canceling) large meetings, and even closing some schools (or taking educational activities online). Harvard University itself has begun to institute some policies designed to limit risk to faculty, staff, students, and postdocs (https://www.harvard.edu/coronavirus).

As Chair of the Department, my primary responsibility it to ensure that we can continue to meet research and educational missions in an environment in which all of us are as safe as possible and feel confident in our ability to word effectively. My most important goal is making sure that our students, particularly those nearing graduation, are able to complete their degrees in a timely manner. In partnership with Brent Coull, the Associate Chair, and Elizabeth Solinga, our Departmental Administrator, and other leading important programs, we have been taking proactive steps to put infrastructure in place to support teaching and research should the worst happen and the University temporarily suspend in-person operations. We have also been working with the School administration to ensure both coordination across the School and University as well as a timely, bi-directional flow of information.

I am very proud of our faculty, postdocs, and students who have already thrown themselves into understanding the disease and the impact of interventions. In particular, Xihong Lin has been working with a group of faculty at the Tongji School of Public Health of Hua-Zhong Science and Technology University in Wuhan analyzing the 25,000+ lab-confirmed COVID-19 cases to study epidemiological characteristics and effects of various interventions on the rate of transmission that could provide timely information that could be important in dictating public policy. The pre-print is available at MedXriv and a key summary of the findings can be found in this tweet.

In the meantime, I want to urge people to keep things in perspective. While COVID-19 is spreading quickly, influenza takes a substantial toll each year. This season, there were an estimated 34,000,000-49,000,000 flu illnesses and 20,000-52,000 deaths (https://www.cdc.gov/flu/about/burden/preliminary-in-season-estimates.htm). And, as with the flu, there are some general, good-sense public health measures that all of us can take:

  1. Think carefully about travel, especially to countries/cities where COVID-19 is known to be active. Current advisories from the CDC can be found athttps://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/travelers/index.html.
  2. If you have a fever, please stay at home and use an alternative method for carrying out your research/mentoring/teaching duties while seeking appropriate medical care.
  3. Wash your hands often. Here’s a simple demo of how to do that which you can share with others. Avoid touching your eyes, nose or mouth. Cover your cough or sneeze with a tissue or your sleeve. Then, wash your hands.
  4. Consider greeting others with a warm smile, nod, or bow instead of a handshake, particularly at conferences or other large gatherings.
  5. Get the flu vaccine if you haven’t already done so. Seasonal flu activity is high in the US and is expected to continue for weeks. Being weakened by flu may increase your susceptibility to COVID-19.
Finally, I want to remind everyone that public health goes beyond disease. Unfortunately, COVID-19 has brought an increase in xenophobia and racism, particularly toward individuals of Asian ethnicity. As we all know, viruses can be carried by, and can effect, anyone. I want to encourage everyone to be proactive in ensuring that students, faculty, staff, and others in our community are not stigmatized, discriminated against, or treated with prejudice as a result of widely circulating misinformation about COVID-19 in public media and social media. Our strength is our diversity and our responsibility is to ensure that we use our knowledge and the information we have to ensure the health, safety, and security of those around us.

John Quackenbush