By: Max Marinelli (Editor ‘22)
I was lucky enough to virtually interview Dr. Sonia Chin, upper school biology teacher at FCS, to talk about her views on COVID-19 within the entirety of the United States and the world. The pandemic, which goes by many names (coronavirus, COVID-19, SARS-CoV-2), has unsurprisingly become one of the most prevalent topics in American politics. While Chin is optimistic about Biden’s juxtaposing views regarding social distancing and mask wearing in relation to our current president’s, she wanted to stress that “pandemics are fundamentally scientific problems” and are never a “political problem until politicians make them one,” as is the case with President Trump. Trump has always been aware that telling citizens to shut things down and mandating the wearing of masks would never have been popular; he has known, too, that catering to special interests would be a clearer path to re-election, so there’s no mystery as to why America—despite being one of the richest and most advanced countries in the world—has severely struggled with the pandemic during an election year. Something that is worth noting, however, is that Biden has already publicly claimed that he will not be seeking re-election in 2024, and should be able to focus more on fixing long-term issues than pandering to his own future campaign. America’s drastic party changes, though, will always make it harder to overcome future scientific challenges without “vast public outcry,” something Chin hasn’t seen, even in the face of the pandemic.
Many East-Asian countries, like China, Korea, Taiwan, and Singapore, have been praised for their excellent treatment of the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic. I questioned Chin as to how this area of the world was able to adapt to and subdue the pandemic so quickly: “We haven’t, in America, dealt with something quite so scary before… in 2003, the original SARS-CoV-1 epidemic had a mortality rate of 11% [much greater than the flu or SARS-CoV-2], and East Asian countries were hit much harder and, as a result, put in place the infrastructure to handle a pandemic—in essence, they already had ideas of how to handle a pandemic.” Due to America’s inexperience, we did not have the supply chain set up—for masks, sanitizing products, etc.—that would have prepared us for SARS-CoV-2 and other future pandemics. One would hope that America, and the rest of the world, will be able to utilize this pandemic as a catalyst for the implementation of such a supply chain.
The supply chain for a COVID-19 vaccine, too, still needs to be implemented before Americans can expect widespread distribution. Chin mentioned that part of the reason a new supply chain will need to be created is that “Pfizer’s vaccine candidate, as well as the other vaccine candidates in phase three clinical trials, is an mRNA vaccine, a type of vaccine that has never before been approved by the FDA.” There has been a lot of buzz around Pfizer’s vaccine, as a recent report allegedly showed that their vaccine was upwards of ninety-percent effective, but Chin wanted to stress that “biology is really complicated: you never truly know what’s gonna happen,” and that we should not assume the vaccine will necessarily be approved by the FDA for distribution, nor that any vaccine will act as a “silver bullet” for COVID-19. Since phase three clinical trials have not yet been completed for Pfizer’s vaccine candidate, the possibility that the vaccine will be found ineffective is still feasible, and this would kill the project. If any vaccine is approved for distribution, Americans should still expect to remain in a masked, socially-distant state of life for several months following its widespread release, as well as accept the high probability of receiving yearly coronavirus vaccines, just as with the flu. Despite the fact that a vaccine will not bring an immediate end to COVID-19, any approval of a vaccine should be treated as immensely positive progress in our fight against the virus.
As the US sets records for single-day COVID-19 infection and death totals, Chin “thinks it’s wise to keep schools closed over the winter because cases are rising so greatly and because we cannot be outside over the winter.” She continued: “A huge part of safely doing face-to-face school right now is being outside, because being outside, according to some studies, decreases the transmission rate by twenty times.” The sheer disparity in transmission between students learning outside and inside, and the drastic increase in local and nationwide cases, should and has warranted the shutdown of schools throughout the area. For now, though, it is important that people make sure to remain safe over the holidays. In order to help prevent the spread of COVID-19, Chin wanted to remind students to “not touch the front of their masks, practice proper hand-hygiene, and remain conscious of social distancing,” as there is probable cause to believe that infection rates will spike as people gather with family over the holidays. I wish everyone a happy Thanksgiving, notwithstanding the circumstances, and I wish for everyone to stay safe during these incomparable times!
To compliment my interview with Dr. Sonia Chin about COVID-19’s impact on the country, I held a zoom interview with Mr. Alex Pearson, upper school Latin teacher, network administrator, and self-proclaimed “data nerd” at Friends’ Central, about his views on the school’s current and future plans regarding the COVID-19 pandemic. Initially, it was announced that Friends’ Central Upper School would go completely virtual for a fourteen-day period (the weeks of November 2nd and 9th), following Upper School Principal, Beth Johnson, testing positive for COVID-19; following the spike in cases, throughout the country and especially in the area surrounding FCS, it was recently announced that school would remain virtual until December 7th. As has been common in our lives since March, there is no guarantee that students will return to any of the campuses come December 7th, as so much is in flux, but Pearson was able to clear up a variety of questions and concerns which had been prevalent on my mind.
I wanted to get some clarification on the designated timeline for school closure following an isolated case among a student or teacher. Pearson assured me that, since FCS has been so cautious in limiting and tracing all contact, the school should be able to only “close down just the [infected] pod.” While the members of the infected pod/cohort will have to quarantine for an immediate fourteen-day period, other students should expect to be able to return after missing a maximum of only one day of in-person schooling; contact tracing is more complicated in the middle school than the lower school, and even more so in the upper school, but a fourteen-day, campus-wide shutdown should not have to be put into effect for isolated cases. Being someone who tends to be more pessimistic, I inquired as to whether Pearson believes that we will be able to return in December for an extended period of time: while it is impossible to see the future, Pearson ending up siding with Chin, explaining that, “if he had to predict, he would say that it might take a while [to return].” “Even as cases rise,” he expounded, “people may feel like they have to be with family for the holidays, and that might blur their judgment on quarantine.” Aware of the challenging decisions that will arise over the holidays, Pearson urges that “people think before they act and that they examine their values.” He did want to assure me, however, that “the school is looking at all sorts of options and remaining agile,” adding, “the schedule we’re using now was just one of many, and there are many other options, for sure.” Friends’ Central has amazingly bright members on all fronts and is utilizing medical forces such as CHOP to guide its responses and mitigation measures around COVID-19—students truly could not be in better hands during these unforgiving and uncertain times.
Despite a lot of disappointing news flying around these days, Pearson always remains a man of immense wisdom and an attentive, open mind. There are lots of bright spots that have highlighted the pandemic in Pearson’s eyes, “a new administration [Joe Biden’s] that promotes the wearing of masks” certainly being one of them. Pearson has also been quite impressed with the (new) students’ flexibility throughout the pandemic: “The kids are pretty tough… some of these young ninth-graders are fierce and fighting and it’s very admirable.” He wanted to stress that he believes that FCS has striven to be and succeeded in being “part of the solution, not the problem [when it comes to the pandemic],” and he has delighted in watching the students find “ingenious ways to have things like prom” over the past eight months. Pearson looks forward to seeing students overcome more problems in the near future with novel solutions.