In explaining to her young son how the new coronavirus spreads, Jill Henning used a model of widening circles that overlap and intersect.
As an associate professor of biology at the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown, she finds models help people understand complex scientific phenomena.
“You have your circle, and then you have to think about how other people have circles,” she said in describing the social nature of highly contagious COVID-19. “You interact with the people in your circle, but you also then interact with people in all of their circles. And you have second-degree rings, third-degree rings.
“That’s where a lot of the questions come from – who have I been close to? People don’t always understand how that works. And honestly, sometimes science doesn’t either.”
Henning has been helping a lot of people better understand the virus through The Tribune-Democrat’s daily feature: “COVID-19: Your Questions.”
Local experts have fielded more than 100 questions about COVID-19 since early March – with Henning and Dr. David Csikos, chief medical officer at Chan Soon-Shiong Medical Center at Windber, tirelessly handling the vast majority of the queries.
Csikos reminds individuals that they should always talk with their own doctors – who know their personal health histories, prescriptions they might be taking and other important factors – especially if feeling sick or facing an urgent concern.
Early on, readers sent in questions sporadically, and they were of a broad nature:
What is the coronavirus?
Where did it come from?
How does it affect a person’s body?
But lately, the questions have increased in frequency and have become much more specific and personal.
Thanks to extensive media coverage, Henning said, people “generally know what the symptoms are. So now it’s more like, ‘I was exposed to my husband’s grand-daughter’s child, so how do I handle that?’ People don’t know whether they should be tested, or how they should go about that. That’s the information they need now.”
A few recent examples sent to the Tribune:
• “If a family member was in contact with someone that had the virus and the family member’s test was negative, does the family need to quarantine?”
• “I just found out my granddaughter has COVID-19 and I was around her 11 days ago. What do I do?”
• “My wife and I were exposed to my son two days before he manifested COVID-19 symptoms and tested positive ...”
“People are scared, they’re worried – and they’re trying to find answers,” Henning said.
“They are valid questions, and I am glad people are asking them. This shows some level of respect for the virus, which is a good thing, since the virus isn’t going anywhere.”
Csikos said the same shift has occurred at the hospital where he works.
“When we first started, it was more about the science of COVID-19,” he said. “Lately, it has turned more toward the medical side – and that’s also what people are asking in the office and the hospital. It’s very personal.”
He added: “People want to know more. What are their contact exposure risks? What does the future hold? People have a lot of questions on the immune response and post-infection immunity.”
Csikos said much of the early skepticism about whether the virus was real has given way to concern about how people can keep themselves and their families safe – without necessarily shutting down their lives entirely.
The COVID-19 Q&A has been popular with readers, showing up among the most-read items in the Tribune’s analytics reports.
And through the magic of digital publishing, the geographic reach of the questions has grown. Csikos, Henning and others have answered questions from as far away as California – as well as from local communities.
And some assumptions from early in the COVID-19 period – such as that the virus would fade when hot weather arrived – have proven untrue.
Csikos pointed to spikes in Arizona, Texas and Florida – all states that have generated questions for our experts.
“There’s a level of anxiety because this virus is new for all of us, including physicians,” Csikos said.
“There’s no effective treatment or vaccine yet. The pandemic is still only a few months old. Our knowledge has grown dramatically, but there’s still a lot to be learned.”
The experts here are motivated to answer the steady stream of questions because they are helping people they’ll never meet with responding to COVID-19.
“Even at places of employment,” Csikos said, “people are saying, ‘Yeah, I tested positive and I feel a responsibility to divulge that.’ ”
Which circles back to Henning’s circles model. Education is the first step, she said.
Then people must understand the responsibility that comes with the knowledge that every time two circles meet, it’s an opportunity for the virus to be passed – if folks aren’t wearing masks, washing their hands frequently and practicing social distancing.
“It’s a balance, and you have to weigh your risks,” said Henning, who admitted she’s even had frustrating conversations with members of her family.
“The risks that you are taking, you are also doing that to the next person and you are affecting other people,” she said. “So, now I have forced my risk on that other person or those other people. You’ve made choices for them that they didn’t make for themselves.
“It requires a social contract. You own up to the risks that you have chosen to take.
“Some people are having trouble with that. People want to be done with it. They’ve generally adjusted to what is happening. But on the other hand, they’re tired of restrictions.”