Summary of the October 29 COVID-19 Question & Answer Session with the Coordination Team
by Silvia Ecclesia
On October 29, a Q&A session on Covid-19 took place via Webex to answer some of the questions students, professors, and staff have about the evolving of the situation on Campus.
The session, in the spirit of the new measures, was entirely online. The moderator, head of communications and events Daniel Graham, introduced the panel composed by Dr. Sueri Moon, and Professor Vinh-Kim Nguyen from the Global Health Center, Director of Studies Professor Andrea Bianchi, as well as Bruno Chatagnat, and Claudia Saviaux Druliolle to answer questions relating to their respective field of activity. The Director Marie-Laure Salles also joined for a brief speech at the beginning of the session.
Dr. Salles addressed the audience in French for a short introduction. She reviewed the existing measures and expressed the Institute’s commitment to try to keep the activities as normal as possible. Yesterday’s announcements from the federal authorities didn’t bring much change. The Institute remains vigilant and mobilized in order to adapt fast to the developing situation. “Prend soigne de vous” was her kind final greeting.
Dr. Moon, Co-director of the Global Health Centre, gave us an updated overview of the pandemic globally and locally with the support of many graphs and data. “The situation is very serious” she stated. The pandemic is spreading quickly and, looking at the European situation, our area is the most problematic. The situation is growing faster in Switzerland than anywhere else in the continent, including the neighbouring countries. The “Suisse Romande” (Genève, Vaud and Valais cantons) is the area bearing the heaviest burden.
Many COVID-19 cases have mild or no symptoms, however, the growth-rate of the cases is exponential and Swiss hospitals are under pressure, even as the death rate lags slightly behind the cases. Unfortunately, the age category most hit by the virus is the one that populates our classes: 20-29 year olds, who are at high risk of infection and transmission but usually show mild symptoms.
The situation in Geneva itself is critical. Even if the number of tests is high, the positivity rate of over 40% demonstrates that the canton is not testing enough. “The numbers are significantly undercounting” because we are not doing enough tests. The situation in hospitals is also reaching a breaking point: in two to four weeks they will reach their maximum capacity.
Moon then went on to both ask and answer what we can consider the first question of this Q&A: what difference do the measures we have been taking make?
As some new measures have been adopted and others abandoned, it will take two or three weeks to see the impact of these changes. The overall message that the Federal Government wants to communicate is that we need to reduce contact with people as much as possible. The idea is that everybody should interact only within their “social bubble”, that is their limited social circle. Travel restrictions have been lifted and the government advises not to travel only in a small list of countries.
She reiterates that we are currently at the beginning of a second wave which is going to be worse than the first. Today, we have a better understanding of how the virus spreads, but not of how it works. The main difference from the first wave is fatigue. Everyone is just tired of the situation, and this makes it more difficult to put measures in place.
As of next month, rapid diagnosis tests will be available in pharmacies and hospitals; they will be less reliable but faster and widely available. Vaccines and drugs are not to be expected until 2021 and “they are not a silver bullet”. It’s important to remain vigilant, despite the general fatigue.
Professor Nguyen then took the mic. He put a strong emphasis on the difficulties encountered by hospitals. Currently, in HUG (Hôpital Universitaire Genevois) 430 patients have recovered from Covid-19 and 37 are in intensive care. Many more are being dismissed, but with cases growing so fast the number of hospitalizations doubled in a week.
Professor Bianchi reassured the audience that instruction can readily go online, and the administration will put in their best efforts to make it work.
The panel then started answering the questions coming from the online chat.
How can we define the current situation? Are we still in a pandemic?
Nguyen: Pan means everywhere. If we have an increase of cases only in Geneva it’s not a pandemic, if we have it everywhere it is. We cannot rely on practical tools to stop the pandemic from coming from everywhere. So it is a pandemic because it is everywhere.
Is taking a flu vaccine recommended?
Nguyen: We are negotiating with the University of Geneva to obtain a flu vaccination. It is recommended to everyone because the symptoms overlap with those of the Covid-19 virus and we don’t want to have two epidemics at the same time. However, the flu is seasonal and in Australia, where they already went through the flu season, they didn’t have an outbreak because of social distancing. We are working on the flu vaccination, but the priority is given to health care workers and vulnerable people.
What is the best source for finding Covid-19 related news about other countries?
Moon: there are many sources out there. The John Hopkins University is a good option as they are fast. At the Swiss level, the Federal Office for Public Health is the best source. At the cantonal level there is ge.ch.
Will sanitizers be offered in the library? What are the rules for using the library?
Chatagnat: There are spray disinfectants on every table, or you can ask the librarians.
This answer provoked a little discussion in the chat. A person working in the library pointed out that they didn’t receive any information about providing sanitizers to students (currently there are only wipes at the entrance that can be used for cleaning the tables), and the employees themselves had difficulties in accessing disinfectants for the front desk. Bruno Chatagnat answered, always in the chat, saying he will make sure this is remedied.
How long will the library stay open?
Chatagnat: As of today, we understand that the library can remain open as long as we follow the measures: wearing a mask at all times and keeping the social distance. The library will stay open for now.
Note: Since this event took place, the situation has changed. On Sunday, the cantonal government announced a set of new measures that included the closure of libraries. However, on the evening of Monday 2 November, the student body received an email indicating that the library would stay open.
If the measures dictated by the canton are insufficient, what further measures do you recommend to take? Like not going to restaurants?
Moon: I don’t really have an answer, I can only give you my personal opinion. At the end of the da,y the decision to do something or not is a complex mix of factors. How much do I need to do this? What are the trade-offs? I can share what I am doing. Restaurants are a challenge. I don’t blame people for going to restaurants. In Italy, they close them at 11pm and in France they closed them entirely. You have to take your mask off to eat so there is obviously a high risk. Here the authorities didn’t want the measures to have a massive economic impact by closing restaurants entirely. However, the train has left the station and if we don’t hit it very hard it is not going to stop. I will wait some weeks before starting going to restaurants, we can always get takeouts. Restaurants are a place where transmission can happen.
Note: The aforementioned new measures include the closure of restaurants, along with all other nonessential businesses.
How reliable are the tests and do you recommend taking one? Also, why are we not reassuring people more about the low risk of COVID if there are so many people with mild or no symptoms?
Nguyen: There is a period of time before the test becomes positive and it is here that we can have false negativity. All tests have false negativity. Now, it is complicated to get a test, however, we shouldn’t rely on tests, they are not the solution. They could be if they were more generalized, but now we are not conducting nearly enough of them.
About why we aren’t reassuring more people, the question is: how do you get people to change their behaviour? You scare them, incentive them? It is very hard to strike the right balance. The sense here is that the population is not scared enough, but today it seems there has been a shift. People wear masks in the street, on the bus, everywhere.
What about herd and individual immunity? Is it possible to reach herd immunity and why aren’t we relying more on it? Is individual immunity also possible?
Moon: There has been a lot of debate about this. Never before there has been an attempt to achieve herd immunity without a vaccine. The idea of herd immunity is that you vaccine all the people so that the ones that are more vulnerable and cannot be vaccinated are protected. But the vaccine can be also like the flu vaccine, that even if you did it, you can still sometimes get the flu. Without a vaccine we are not going to pursue herd immunity and many politicians talk about it without scientific knowledge.
Nguyen: On the individual immunity, we have documented cases of re-infection. You can get re-infected with the same virus. Sometimes people have taken tests that were negative and then they tested positive again later. But it is too early to tell and there aren’t many stories there.
Comment from the audience: Last semester, professors were slow in answering to emails and difficult to reach. What tangible accountability measures will be put in place this semester?
Bianchi: We expressly asked professors and TAs to increase their office hours and be more available to students. Professors and TAs have been reminded of this many times. They are holding office-hours online, and some professors are also putting in place a system for advanced online booking. It is one of the bullet points for the teaching staff. I like to differ about the lack of leniency in last semester, many would disagree. I have no reasons to doubt that my colleagues will do anything to be sympathetic and understanding of the situation.
At the beginning of the year professors were told that they needed to be present at the Institute for in-person class. Given the new situation, do professors and TAs need to be present at the Institute?
Bianchi: For now, there is an obligation to take courses online. Teachers are given the option to continue to use the facilities in the classes for online teaching, and there is a good chunk of them that like to do so, but some want to do it from home. There is no obligation to come to the Institute.
Students were told that they can use available classrooms to follow online courses if they are unable to do it from home. Is there a limit on how many students can use one class at a time?
Bianchi: That is one of the bullet points. If you are unable to work from home, it might be preferable or necessary to use classes in the Institute where there is no teaching going on. We are still working on the modality of how to make known which rooms are available and which are not. The general protocol is to wear a mask and maintain the social distance, however, we should obviously avoid having too many people in a class. Those who can work from home should do so.
What happens if a professor is ill? Will the teaching continue?
Bianchi: It depends on the situation and if they are willing to continue to teach if they have mild symptoms. It is up to the professor but we will see on a case by case basis. It’s going to be an ad hoc decision.
Can “frontaliers” from France come to work at the Institute one or two times a week?
Druliolle: Bien sûr. Border workers from France can come to the Institute to work. The exceptions adopted in March are still valid, so “frontaliers” can come to the Institute one or two times a week. Our aim is to maintain the continuity of all services. It is important to follow the recommendations and limit contacts. However, it is important for the equipe to be present. The new system is working, so we consider it our new normal.
Will there be a further extension for the completion of PhD studies given the situation, like there has been in March?
Bianchi: Seeing the situation, a 6 months extension of PhDs’ curriculum has been granted in spring. For now, they are not considering another extension.
Will employees at the Institute get the flu vaccine?
Druliolle: The decision is that no, we will give no vaccine. You should check with your doctor. There is a supply problem now and there are people that have priorities, so as employers we are not going to do that. You should ask your doctor.
What happens if I enter in contact with a COVID-19 positive person at the Institute? For example, a person that has the office on my same floor and with which I share the kitchen facilities?
Nguyen: We have to define “contact”. Contact is being for more than 15 minutes in the same room without a mask. Roughly 20 people in our community tested positive in the last few weeks but the medcin cantonal deemed that they didn’t have any contacts here because of the measures we have. The responsibility to identify the contacts is on the federal authorities; we cannot do it. We can only tell people to alert their contacts, but working in the same office is not considered a contact. The average person with COVID infects less than 5-10% of the people they come into contact with. Some people are super spreaders but most people aren’t.
Chatagnat: When you have any symptoms you should inform us. Please, don’t forget to inform us through the email address.
Moon: The contact tracing team in Geneva has been overwhelmed, so it is an act of personal responsibility to inform the people with which you have been in contact. The situation is such that the team is not able to do it anymore. This is also one of the reasons for the new app for contact tracing (SwissCovid ed.). It is a fully voluntary thing but if you feel comfortable with it, it is an action that can help.