UC Davis leaders and researchers gathered virtually May 14 to answer the public’s questions about COVID-19, ranging from the safety of homemade masks to whether children or pets could transmit the virus.
Distinguished Professor Walter Leal brought the panel together for his second COVID-19 Public Awareness Symposium. It featured straight talk from experts about many areas that have been shrouded in confusion and conflicting information.
“Sharing information from the experts is the best thing we can do for our community in these difficult times,” Leal told viewers on Zoom and YouTube. More than 2,000 people around the world watched live and recorded.
UC President Janet Napolitano opened the session with praise for the efforts of UC health care providers and researchers, calling out UC Davis. “Hard times tend to reveal an institution’s true character,” she said. “The world is witnessing the grace and skill with which the people of UC Davis and the UC Davis Medical Center are continuing to meet this challenge.”
UC Davis Health leaders provided updates on research, including the latest findings on how the virus is transmitted, efforts to test antibodies produced by COVID-19 patients, and research on a vaccine and dermal patch that could be delivered by mail.
“Studying what we need to be scared [of], and frankly, what we don’t need to be scared of, is really critical to going back to enjoying our lives and avoiding both contamination and potential transmission of the disease,” said David Lubarsky, vice chancellor of Human health Sciences and CEO of UC Davis Health.
One of many key COVID-19 studies is a test of UC Davis Health employees, for antibodies and whether they offer protection, which could help with vaccine development, he said. This study might eventually be extended to the public.
“We don’t know if antibodies make you immune, what level confers immunity and how long that immunity lasts,” Lubarsky said. “We’re not telling people who have antibodies that they are safe. We need to know more.”
UC Davis has 24 active COVID-19 studies and is pursuing possible treatments on many fronts, including plasma transfusions from blood donors who recovered from COVID-19 used in an effort to boost another patient’s ability to neutralize the virus, said Allison Brashear, dean of the School of Medicine. This approach has a long history of effectiveness in medicine, and Brashear said UC Davis is asking recovered COVID-19 patients to donate blood for the process, if possible.
“This is the way every single survivor can give back,” she said.
Former NASA astronaut Steve Robinson, now a UC Davis professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering, moderated questions that had been submitted in advance. Other questions came in during the program.
Here is a sampling:
• Children’s role in spreading the virus — “We don’t know a lot but we can’t afford to discount their role,” Lubarsky said. “We do know they have been associated with spreading the disease to adults. We do know that a great deal of transmission studied in Italy and China involved close household contact.
“It is cavalier to simply open elementary schools without understanding this. We can’t assume that because they may be asymptomatic and relatively less affected that they aren’t less contagious.”
• Pets — “There is still absolutely no evidence that dogs and cats can transmit infections back to people,” said Jane Sykes, chief veterinary medical officer at the Veterinary Medical Teaching Hospital.
She said dogs and cats can get infected, but there have been no animal-to-person transmissions recorded.
• Gloves — Emanuel Maverakis, UC Davis professor of dermatology and immunology, cautioned that in many cases, gloves do not provide protection and could even cause problems if people assume they are being protected.
“The virus is not going to infect you through the hand,” he said. “It will infect you because you get it on the hand and you touch your face and self-inoculate. A glove offers no protection against self-inoculation.”
He said gloves are useful for people such as medical professionals in situations where they are touching contaminated surfaces, or if handwashing is irritating your skin.=
• Hand-washing — Maverakis said the key is maximizing the times you clean your hands, but it is better to use alcohol-based hand sanitizer, if possible, to protect your skin.
“Hands are not designed for frequent hand-washing,” he said. “The average we can tolerate is maybe 10 times a day.”
• Homemade masks — Both Atul Malhotra, UC San Diego professor of medicine, pulmonology and critical care, and You-lo Hsieh, UC Davis Distinguished Professor of biological and agricultural engineering, said masks are important but mostly to stop the spread of the virus.
“They’re really not that effective in protecting the provider,” Malhotra said. “They are better at protecting others. ... Cloth masks can give a false sense of security.”
Hsieh said she had no solid recommendation for the best material for homemade masks because not enough is known about the virus. She said generally, the denser and more tightly woven the material, the more it will prevent the spread of droplets carrying the virus.
“It’s important to pick material you can breathe through,” she said. “But remember, the ones that are easier to breathe through offer less protection.”
• Sexual transmission — James Hotaling, associate professor of urology, University of Utah School of Medicine, said there are no completely clear answers, but it appears sexual transmission is a not a high risk. He said a recent study in China found COVID-19 in the semen of some very sick patients, but there has not been evidence of the virus in the semen of mild to moderately sick or recovering patients.
Hotaling said kissing poses a greater danger of transmission. “The biggest risk is saliva or secretions,” he said.
All the scientists said knowledge on every front is progressing rapidly, but there is still a long way to go.
“We’re in uncharted territory,” Brashear said. “It’s going to be a work in progress.”