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UC Merced experts share insight on COVID-19 pandemic
UC Merced experts
Journal reporter Angelina Martin talks with UC Merced professors Dr. Juris Grasis and Dr. Jenny Howell about the coronavirus pandemic (FRANKIE TOVAR/The Journal).

This week the 209 Podcast visited University of California, Merced to speak with two of their professors, Dr. Juris Grasis and Dr. Jenny Howell, about the coronavirus pandemic. Dr. Grasis is an expert in virology and the body’s immune response to viruses, while Dr. Howell is a health psychologist whose studies focus on health decision-making and behavior, with a particular focus on how people deal with uncertainty. The conversation shed light on some common misconceptions about the disease, delved into the mental health impacts of isolation and provided information on how the community can get through this crisis together. While the Q&A below is just a snippet of the podcast episode, the conversation can be heard in its entirety by visiting, Studio209’s YouTube channel and all podcast platforms.



What is the proper name for this disease?

Grasis: The proper name for it is SARS Coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2). It’s related to the original SARS coronavirus outbreak in the early 2000s, so this is a very similar type of viral strain to that. COVID-19 is related to the disease itself and how the disease might affect a person and progress from there.


A lot of people are saying that this is no different than the common flu. Could you speak to that?

Grasis: It is relatable to the flu in that that’s what we know, but this seems to be a lot more dangerous. I mean, we have a vaccine to the flu every season and yet it still infects up to 60 million Americans every year, it may actually kill another 60,000 Americans every year. We have no vaccine to this, right, and it could be much scarier. A lot more people could become infected, and more people could die from this disease, so it’s similar because that’s what our knowledge is to the flu, but it is actually much more dangerous because we have no vaccine to it.


Is there any psychology behind people telling themselves “This is just a flu; I don’t need to worry?”

Howell: We kind of have a psychological infrastructure that protects us in the case that we’re facing bad news or uncertainty that essentially is there to help us think good things are going to happen and be optimistic about the future, because otherwise we would give up. It’s pretty natural for people to first of all make analogies, but also to try and understand it in terms of what they’ve encountered before...having to stay home and be in a different place really shifts us away from our typical flu symptoms where maybe just the people who were sick would stay home...I think it’s starting to feel psychologically different as our measures are ramping up.


We still see a lot of younger people out and about because they think that this is a sickness that only affects older people. Is this the case?


Grasis: This virus in particular does seem to affect a lot of older people, though not exclusively. It is affecting people of all ages, it just seems to affect people who have compromised immune systems, metabolic disorders, so the elderly tend to fit into those sort of categories...Our immune systems start to slow down as we age, they might have more metabolic disorders, but people who have hypertension or diabetes are more susceptible to this as well so it really can affect everybody. Optimistically, if you’re healthy you’d be okay, but there are still some mitigating circumstances.

Howell: It’s also the case that the symptoms don’t necessarily present right away...I think people don’t realize how many immunocompromised people they come in contact with, and also the things that they do socially that could immunocompromise them as well. Drinking compromises your immune system in some ways, so I think people don’t necessarily realize the kinds of behavior that they’re engaging in and how it can put other people at risk. Even if you’re healthy I think that we have to take those measures to protect our broader community.


Are all of these closures really necessary?

Grasis: Actually, I think that we’ve lost time. Scientists were aware of this virus in December, we started sounding the alarm in January. I think the government started to take notice of this in February and only lately have we actually started to make any sort of adjustments to this. There isn’t enough testing, there isn’t enough going on. I don’t think there’s an overreaction; if anything, this is an underreaction and everything is much too late. Unfortunately, what that often is going to lead to is the things that we’re seeing in other countries where we’re going to be on total lockdown, perhaps soon, and that’s where things get scary.


How can people best protect themselves from this virus?

Grasis: This is a respiratory virus, so it is transmitted through the air and through aerosol contact. The best way to kill the virus is simply by soap and water. It really is true. People might think that something so simple could work so well, but basically the virus is held together by fat, by lipid, so if you put soap into your dishes all the fat disappears. Well, it’s the same thing that happens with viruses. If you go and wash your hands, the virus will break apart. That’s one of the best ways to go about getting rid of the virus. The hand sanitizers work equally well, so if you don’t have soap and water do use the hand sanitizer. Otherwise, we talk about social distancing. Keep outside of six feet from someone else because that’s the amount of distance that an aerosol can actually spray. Then in context of bigger social gatherings it’s important to stay in groups of less than 10 so your chances of being in contact with someone who is infected with it are much less.


What kind of mental impact can social distancing have on people?

Howell: I think it’s a problematic term in many ways. We really are talking about physical distancing, and I think some people are taking it to mean I need to be socially isolated and they don’t necessarily think creatively about how I can still get that social interaction in. It’s hard to be lonely, it’s hard to stay in the same physical place, particularly for some people, but it’s the case that even introverts need social interaction. There are some people right now, for example in the Bay Area, who are sheltering in place on their own, and that can be really, really hard on a person not from just a psychological perspective, but it actually does appear to compromise the immune system from the evidence that we have. It’s really a positive thing to try to connect with other people, to do things like get online and cook dinner together with someone from your family or call up someone. We have a lot of extra time now so there’s time to reconnect with people, and it’s a good time to make sure that even though we’re physically distancing we’re not actually socially totally cutting ourselves off because I think that’s a really tough thing and something that will undermine someone’s ability to make it through this, particularly if it lasts a long time.