Campus News

In Jacobs School visit, Hochul, UB experts tout mask use

Photos: Sandra Kicman


Published June 30, 2020

“If most people wear face masks, we can keep this completely under control. This is why we think face masks are such an important tool for us in trying to control transmission. ”
Peter Winkelstein, executive director
Institute for Healthcare Informatics

If the COVID-19 pandemic is a baseball game, “we’re still in the early innings. I’m not even sure if we’ve gotten into the middle relievers,” said Thomas A. Russo, professor and chief of infectious diseases in the Department of Medicine, Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences.

Russo was one of three UB experts who appeared alongside Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul Monday afternoon for a brief presentation inside the Jacobs School. With Western New York entering Phase 4 of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s reopening plan today, Hochul was in town to discuss the plan, as well as the importance of all New Yorkers wearing face masks to halt the spread of the novel coronavirus.

The university is finalizing its on-campus health guidelines, which will include mandatory mask usage for students, faculty, staff and visitors.

The Empire State is in far better shape than many other states, and that’s because New York officials have relied on data and guidance from public health experts, including those at UB, Hochul said.

“That is the process that guided us to the place we are today, where we’ve gone from the highest rate of infection in America to now having the lowest rate of infection,” she said.

“We are data driven. We are driven by the science and the experts, and that is why I wanted to come here today to allow the community to hear directly from the experts, the people who understand this and are guiding the State of New York to a far better place than we see elsewhere,” Hochul said, referring to states that have seen a spike in cases after reopening businesses too soon.

In addition to Russo, Hochul was joined by John Sellick, professor in the Department of Medicine and an infectious disease expert; Peter Winkelstein, executive director of the Institute for Healthcare Informatics, who has been preparing COVID-19 modeling for Erie County; and Michael E. Cain, vice president for health sciences and dean of the Jacobs School, who has served with Hochul on the committee monitoring COVID-19 in Western New York.

“To be able to draw on their expertise in the throes of a pandemic gives Gov. Cuomo and myself tremendous confidence to know that we’re charting the right course based on the data that we’ve received from these individuals,” Hochul said. “I want to thank everyone at the Jacobs School, particularly Dr. Cain, for being so willing to share what you’re doing with the public.”

Winkelstein presented some of the COVID-19 modeling and forecasting work his team has done for Erie County. The models underscore the importance of urging everyone to wear a face mask in public. As an example, he showed a graph explaining the potential impacts on differing percentages of people using face masks. If 25% of people wear face masks, “we start to see a rise in cases in the hospitals, we start to fill up our hospitals,” he said.

If 40% use face masks, the numbers are better, but hospital cases still go up. The figures are flat if half the population uses masks.

“And if most people wear face masks, we can keep this completely under control,” Winkelstein said. “This is why we think face masks are such an important tool for us in trying to control transmission.”

Sellick talked about some of the administrative controls area hospitals put into place to increase health and safety — including requiring face masks for health care workers and patients, and screening patients before and at the time of visit — which helped slow the spread of the disease.

“In the 32 years since I’ve been in hospital epidemiology, at Buffalo General, Kaleida and the VA, there has been nothing even close to what we’ve gone through in the last four months,” he said.

Given the severity of the virus, personal protective equipment may become a short-term necessity for workers in non-hospital settings, such as the doctor’s office. “I see this as the natural progression of other things that we’ve done for infection prevention in the hospital and the clinical setting, and this is probably going to become our new norm for at least the immediate future.”

During his presentation, Russo talked about the importance of public health education in stopping the spread of the disease.

“We know how to prevent infections, but we need people to buy in and we need people to be educated about these processes,” he said, adding that educating people about social distancing and face masks is crucial until a vaccine is developed.

“It’s an ongoing process. I think we’re doing well, but we cannot rest on our laurels. There’s lots to be done.”

That, Russo said, includes trying to get so-called “anti-maskers” — people who refuse to wear one in public — to buy into the importance of face mask use.

In closing, Hochul thanked the UB experts for their presentations, and for sharing their expertise. Referencing Russo’s baseball analogy, Hochul said she was hoping “we were getting to the seventh-inning stretch, but perhaps we’re not quite there, Dr. Russo.”

Still, she said, “We’re getting there as a community. Again, to have this medical giant as a resource for all of us is something that we don’t take for granted here in the State of New York.”