Epidemiology Professor Tara Smith Says Be Ready for the Long Haul with Social Distancing

As the country adjusts to the new normal of working from home, schooling from home and living lives of social isolation, Kent State University professor Tara Smith, Ph.D., said people need to realize this new normal may need to continue for a long time.

“It really would not surprise me if this lasted for at least eight weeks or longer,” Smith said.

Smith, an epidemiologist in the College of Public Health, has devoted her career to studying how infections are transferred between animals and humans. She was the first to identify livestock-associated strains of methicillin-resistantStaphylococcus aureus (MRSA) in the United States, and has pioneered the investigation of this organism in the U.S.
Kent State Professor Tara Smith, Ph.D.

She said what is so scary about the strain of coronavirus which is causing COVID-19 disease, is that so much is yet to be learned about it. Still unanswered are questions such as whether patients can recover and then get re-infected a second time and how soon humans will develop immunities to the virus.

One thing Smith is certain of is that the situation in Ohio will get much worse before it gets better, which is why social distancing is not only wise, but critical.

Smith said she was horrified by recent scenes of college students on beaches in Florida and elsewhere who were flagrantly defying health warnings to social distance.

With Kent State’s spring break about to begin, Smith had strong words for students who were thinking about travel and partying.

“I hope our Kent State students are thinking beyond themselves, to protect their loves ones, their grandparents,” Smith said. “It becomes more clear every day just how serious this is. I hope anyone with spring break plans will reconsider going forward.”

Smith said she was disappointed to see that Florida’s governor had refused to shut down beaches to curb the spread of COVID-19, but she praised the local officials who did take measures to shut their beaches even though they knew the economic ramifications would be severe. She also had great praise for Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine and how he has handled the outbreak.

“I think a lot of states are following what Ohio has done,” she said, “I think DeWine’s actions have really given other Republican governors permission to do some of the same things.”

Republicans, Smith believes, had been more hesitant to act due to political ramifications from the current presidential administration, which for weeks was downplaying the potential of the outbreak.

As a scientist, Smith said she is troubled to see how this disease has been used for political purposes.

“It’s so frustrating to have this be a political football instead of just listening to the experts and following the science. It’s definitely frustrating,” she said.

The political wrangling resulted in delays in testing, which is why Smith expects Ohio’s numbers to rise dramatically in the next week or two. As of March 20, Ohio had 119 diagnosed, confirmed cases, but Smith said there are conceivable hundreds more that have not yet been confirmed.

“We’ve only been testing for a week,” she said, noting how New York state had gone from zero cases to more than 4,000 after just 12 days of testing.

Ohio’s numbers will rise rapidly as testing increases, she predicts.

Smith, who serves as chair of the communications committee for the American Society for Microbiology, for years has studied plagues and pandemics throughout history.

This pandemic, she said, is most closely related to the influenza epidemic of 1918, which served as a historical driver for better health care and the creation of public health systems.

Smith is hoping that this pandemic will bring about change, as it highlights the need for health care, better insurance and a social safety net for those who are out of work. “So many people will be hurt in so many ways,” she said.

She also is hoping the situation will awaken the country and the world to the need to be better prepared to respond to future outbreaks.

Public health officials, she said, have been beating the drum since the 1990s that the country is unprepared for this type of pandemic.

After bird flu in the 1990s and swine flu in the early 2000s did not reach global pandemic proportions, society became complacent, she said, resulting in the current levels of unpreparedness seen worldwide.

“We are completely unprepared for a coronavirus pandemic that came out of nowhere,” she said.

Shortages of ventilators, surgical masks and even the swabs needed to test for COVID-19 are all evidence of the level of unpreparedness, Smith said.

That lack of preparedness is why social distancing is so important in fighting the spread of COVID-19, particularly because a vaccine could be years away, Smith emphasized.

Scientists still are grappling with how COVID-19 is spreading so easily, before people are even showing symptoms. So far, the only proven defense to stop the spread has been social distancing measures.

“I just don’t know that people will go for that for a lengthy amount of time,” she said.

Smith joined the faculty of Kent State in August 2013. An Ohio native, she previously spent nine years in the Department of Epidemiology at the University of Iowa College of Public Health, where she directed the college’s Center for Emerging Infectious Diseases. She completed post-doctoral training in molecular epidemiology at the University of Michigan prior to beginning her professorship at the University of Iowa. She obtained her Ph.D. at the University of Toledo and her B.S. in Biology from Yale University.

Smith has published more than 80 peer-reviewed papers and book chapters and has received more than $3 million in funding from the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health to carry out these studies.

She has presented her research at numerous national and international platforms, including talks on Capitol Hill on the topic of agriculture and antibiotic resistance. Her work has been profiled in many major publications, including Science, Nature, and the New York Times, as well as in "Superbug: the Fatal Menace of MRSA" by Maryn McKenna and "Pig Tales: an Omnivore's Quest for Sustainable Meat" by Barry Estabrook.

Learn about online Public Health degrees at Kent State University. 

POSTED: Friday, March 20, 2020 - 2:04pm
UPDATED: Tuesday, May 5, 2020 - 1:58pm
Lisa Abraham