In January, Dr. Erin Bromage of the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth was looking for a topical subject for his biology students. What he didn’t know was that he was ultimately looking at the early information on what would become the coronavirus pandemic.
Bromage, an Australian native who is a comparative immunologist and a professor of biology, was simply trying to keep his students engaged.
“I teach an undergraduate course on the ecology of infectious diseases,” he told Boston.com in a recent interview. “We talk about how we have host-pathogen environments and how they interact with each other. They always like having a relevant disease example in the class. We’ve done triple-E (Eastern Equine Encephalitis) before when that was a problem last year, we’ve done swine flu, we’ve done other things. And this one in January, very early January, I saw that there was something novel emerging from China, and it looked like a real interesting case study for my students.”
The subject was quickly adopted into the class and students (along with Bromage himself) began getting an increasingly disturbing view of the growing COVID-19 outbreak.
“By mid February, it was no longer an academic exercise,” Bromage noted. “It was, ‘OK, this is going to be a bit more serious. This is going to affect our daily lives.’ I was hearing the virologists and the epidemiologists. Their anxiety was coming up, what I was reading was coming up.”
It was at that point that he decided to post about his concerns on Facebook to a limited audience of just people he’s connected to on social media.
“Some people laughed at me, and it went through that stage, but I put the [message] up there,” Bromage said.
But as the days went by, and the situation became increasingly serious, his message kept getting shared.
“Then there were quite a few people that my wife works with in the court system that are not on Facebook for privacy reasons, and they were printing it out to read it,” Bromage explained. “They asked if I could put it on a webpage so they wouldn’t have to keep printing it out for their bosses, who were reading it. So I got a free webpage and started putting the posts there instead.”
From this, Bromage’s personal site was born. As someone who teaches about and researches infectious diseases, he’s proven himself able to not only sift through the constantly increasingly amount of COVID-19 information, but distill it into readable blog posts that millions have turned to.
A particular post on his site titled, “The Risks – Know Them – Avoid Them,” has more than 17.6 million views.
Bromage recently spoke with Boston.com on a range of subjects regarding his work and the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for length and clarity.
How do you feel about the current schedule of reopenings, and specifically how Boston is going more slowly than the rest of Massachusetts?
Erin Bromage: I really love the decisions that are being made by Gov. Baker and Mayor [Walsh], that they’re using biology to help dictate policy. Places around Boston have been hit pretty hard by this. The case numbers are coming down more slowly than other areas. It’s a good decision to just take it a little bit more cautiously.
Do you have an issue with reopening now, or is it more of a question of how we go about it?
EB: My biggest concern with this is — I have concerns with reopening, but I do understand the need for it and I want it as well — my biggest concern is reopening without a plan. Guidance needs to be coming sooner and be clearer, and be more definitive for everybody, be it a backyard barbecue or hair salon.
It’s coming. The CDC recently put out an incredible 60-page guidance. That’s a good start, but it doesn’t give you the grit, the detail that you really need to do it safely. The state has put out guidance, but again, people are unsure how to put it into practice. That’s where we are now. So opening should happen when people have the tools, the resources, the system in place to do it the most successfully with the least risk.
Are there just a few key things that the average person should keep in mind as we enter the reopening process?
EB: Social distancing is a must. You’ve got to maintain that physical space between people no matter where you are, outdoors, indoors, just keep that distance. Masks are very important when you’re in spaces where you can’t physically distance all the time, be it on a path when you’re walking past somebody or in a grocery store. One of the other important things is just assessing your environment. It doesn’t matter if you’re outdoors, if there are a lot of people gathering in one spot, it is not a good spot to be. But you need to be even more cautious when there are too many people indoors.
When you get into an environment with lots of people in a closed space, you need to limit the amount of time you spend in that space.
Everyone talks about the “second wave” of COVID-19 at some point, but do you have concerns that opening everything up again now might just add fuel to a continued first wave?
EB: When you break this down, this whole pandemic in the United States started from a handful of introductions, and that led to 30,000 cases a day, and here we are six weeks after the peak and we’ve still got 20,000 cases a day. When you reopen and you have mobility and there are interactions happening again, and you’ve still got 20,000 new cases every day, even if it doesn’t transmit as efficiently now, you’ve got so many more embers to start new fires and go off again.
So I have a worry that it’s not even going to be a second wave. I do worry with reopening, this may result in us just building back up again and we never will have a real lull between them. I really hope I’m wrong. For me, the biggest one is whatever we do now are personal choices, and that’s really going to determine what summer looks like and how fall starts.
Given the unforeseen popularity of your blog, do you think that indicates a failure of communication on the part of authorities in getting necessary information to people?
EB: I think all the information is out there, but I think it is very hard for people to collate all of that information together and use it as a guide on what is risky and what is not. And that includes me, by the way. In reality, when I’m writing these things, I’m writing them for me to be able to say, ‘Hey, this is the amazing information that is coming from these scientists that are on the front line of this. OK, I see this and this, there’s the trend in there, that’s what this means.’
It really is about me being able to collect my own thoughts and understand it, but in doing so I found that those around me also really liked the way that I was talking, and thinking, and bringing it down and saying, ‘Oh, I knew about this and that, I just didn’t understand how it went together.’ I think that’s what really happened with people was they were told to stay six feet apart, but not why. They were told indoors was more dangerous than outdoors, but not why. Why talking for 10 minutes is dangerous, but not five. That’s why I think [the blog] has stuck and gelled with people.
Are you encouraged that people are seeking this out and seem to have an appetite for scientific expertise and explanations as opposed to just people choosing to go back outside simply because they’ve been inside for so long?
EB: The feedback that I’ve got from this has been tremendous. I think it’s been in the order of a 1,000 positive to every one negative. What I’m encouraged about is the feedback from people in public health, frontline workers, just saying how important this was. I think it helped right across a whole bunch of spectrums with this. People are being able to take that information — and again, it wasn’t the intent — but they can take the information and apply it to their own lives, their own workplaces, and their own choices. So it’s been quite amazing how it’s actually affected people.
Was it frustrating for you early on when you would see some of the warning signs yet your advice — written on Facebook or on your blog — wasn’t taken seriously?
EB: From my level it was interesting because it was only personal feedback. It would be some people saying I was an alarmist, or, ‘Are you being serious, Erin?’ I responded saying, ‘Yeah, I’m saying buy your two weeks worth of food and at worst case use it for a camping trip in summer if I’m wrong.’
So they were trying to work out if I was being serious or not. From my experience, it was the personal side of things, but when I’m watching at 10,000 feet the virologists and the epidemiologists saying that this is going to be big and being told that they’re being alarmists and that they’re wrong, that they were wrong about H1N1, I cannot tell you how frustrating that must have been to be in the public limelight, and them having the knowledge that they did and being told to just be quiet and get back into your box, essentially.
That particular blog post of yours has exploded in popularity, and you have received quite a bit of attention recently for it and your expertise in talking about this subject. What’s been your reaction to the attention? Do you think it further underscores peoples’ thirst for someone to be able to explain the complexity of an issue to them in a relatable way?
EB: I’m still a little uncertain about why this has all happened, because I have learned so much from other scientists talking about this and I guess it was just the right topic at the right time with the right tone. The media attention, I don’t enjoy being under this level of scrutiny. To have your life under a microscope with people looking at you and looking for an ulterior motive is a little intimidating and a little rough. And there’s no monetizing, or ad sales. There’s nothing like that. It’s just straight up advice.
So I look at it as if my media presence is if getting that message out is resulting in people making better choices, and those better choices lead to a better summer — not just for them, because it will also effect me and my family as well — I will stand on top of a hill and keep yelling it to get that outcome.
You mentioned people looking for ulterior motives. Have you had any experiences with people who have called COVID-19 a hoax or hold other extreme views?
EB: So I’ve had about 14,000 emails and then comments on the post online, and I say it’s about 1000:1 positive-negative ratio. The most common one I get is not that it’s a hoax, I have not heard a single hoax [assertion] from anybody. It’s just, ‘This is the common flu, why are we doing this?’
There are still some people doing that. People who engage with me have not been too conspiracy-grounded I think because I’m not telling people we need to stay inside. I think it’s because I’m not trying to alter their life too much, because I know a lot of my colleagues that are putting out information are being attacked quite personally for saying what the science says.