When Bernadette Boden-Albala took a job at the University of California-Irvine last July to head the start of a new public health school, she didn’t expect that her job duties would entail local management of a global pandemic.
Still, she was up for the challenge, joining a task force organized by Chancellor Howard Gillman in January to help educate and support the school’s some 37,600 students, and work with the Orange County Health Care Agency (OCHCA) in its efforts of tracking and analyzing the looming spread of COVID-19 in Orange County.
As the prior senior associate dean of research and program development at New York University’s College of Global Public Health, Boden-Albala moved to California last year from what’s now the nation’s coronavirus epicenter, New York City.
As the director and founding dean of UCI’s planned School of Population Health, Boden-Albala is to lead the transition and combination of the current Program in Public Health, Department of Epidemiology, and Division of Occupational and Environmental Medicine into one new cohesive school that will have north of 1,400 students. The public health school will be one part of the Susan and Henry Samueli College of Health Sciences.
In a slightly unusual move for a university dean, Boden-Albala, known for her research in preventative healthcare and how social factors affect health conditions, chose to teach a class of her own in order to “get a better understanding of the students.”
The class of about 150 pupils began in January. The topic? Infectious diseases, featuring a curious one that was rapidly spreading throughout parts of China.
“Right out of the gate, we were looking at the prevention and transmission of coronavirus,” she said.
Around the same time, the university formed a task force to work with the county healthcare agency in order to track the disease’s potential entry in the OC market, and how that would affect students and the larger population.
“We knew very little about the disease at the time, but even if it hadn’t come to Orange County, we knew with the rich diversity of our student body, our community would be impacted regardless.
“Right away, we worked to put together programs on hygiene and vigilance, which sounds trivial, but it truly is one of the most important things we can do to stop the spread,” Boden-Albala said.
The group started a “pop-up public health program,” which included a hand washing campaign, renting portable sinks to place throughout the campus, and other public information efforts to keep students in the loop.
At the same time, the university started to work closely with OCHCA to analyze COVID-19 in Orange County. The effort kicked off in the beginning of February, before the county had its first known case.
“We wanted to look at the data early on, and better understand the things people were unsure of,” said Boden-Albala. This includes the presumed reproduction rate—each person with COVID-19 is expected to infect up to four others—and how prepared the county’s healthcare system would be, in terms of occupancy, ventilators and personal protective equipment.
Now, as the number of infected people continues to increase in certain areas, the university is looking at where the disease is spreading, and how different social factors play a role (see related story, page 1).
Another new undertaking between UCI and OCHCA: rolling out antibody tests to determine the county’s prevalence, or what percentage of residents have potential immunities.
The question of whether antibodies prevent a person from getting COVID-19 is a controversial one, but there is a “general sense that it represents some kind of immunity,” she said.
Antibody tests, which identify past infection, are different from those that determine current infections. The more people that test positive for COVID-19 antibodies, the closer the population is to achieving herd immunity.
An early test conducted in Los Angeles found that just 4% of 863 adults had an antibody to the virus, though Boden-Albala notes this sample size is small for a population of more than 9 million.
“If you don’t sample enough people, you can miss hot spots where people would have been exposed,” she said.
UCI and OCHCA are a few weeks away from their own antibody test, which will sample about 5,000 people in different areas of the county.
“If just 5% of the population has been exposed, a majority of the population is still at risk, and the 5% doesn’t protect the 95%. Conversely, if 95% of individuals have immunity, it would protect the 5% that doesn’t.”