Vassar on the Front Lines

Voices from a Pandemic

Paul Lantos ’96

As Associate Professor of Pediatric Infectious Diseases, General Internal Medicine, and Occupational and Environmental Medicine at Duke University and Associate Research Professor at the university’s Global Health Institute, Dr. Paul Lantos oversees the management of COVID-19-infected university employees and healthcare workers and conducts research in the spatial epidemiology of infectious disease.

His research team recently analyzed the results of more than 15,000 COVID-19 tests in six counties in the Raleigh-Durham area using geographic information system software and geostatistical analyses to find clusters of infections. They found that that black and Latinx community members were more likely to test positive than whites. His findings raised a host of questions, including whether neighborhood factors such as housing density, household size, or socioeconomic status could predict who is more at risk. The COVID-19 pandemic is only one part of his active research portfolio; he’s also evaluating the spatial distribution of influenza, Lyme disease, cytomegalovirus, and diseases of global health importance such as dengue fever, rabies, and intestinal parasitic diseases. 

Submitted June 27, 2020

What do you think accounts for the results of your recent COVID-19 study?

In many health conditions, we find that racial and ethnic minorities suffer dishearteningly high burdens of disease and poor outcomes compared with whites, even those living in the same neighborhood. In most cases, these disparities are the product of cumulative social and biological stressors, such as housing density and quality, nutrition, pollution, increased exposure to infections, and inadequate access to medical care. In the case of COVID-19, which is highly contagious, an important contributor may be social networks that are segregated along racial and ethnic lines, so the epidemic tends to amplify within segregated populations even when separated geographically. Moreover, minority populations often live in multigenerational households that may facilitate transmission to vulnerable family members.

Was this pandemic something that could have been predicted?

The COVID-19 pandemic is the least surprising global health emergency we have ever faced. Despite spreading throughout the globe, SARS (which appeared in 2002) was easily contained and disappeared in 2004. But before the SARS epidemic was over, we had come to realize that emerging coronaviruses posed a potential pandemic threat. Just eight years later, in fact, the highly lethal MERS coronavirus appeared in the Arabian Peninsula.

“The COVID-19 pandemic is the least surprising global health emergency we have ever faced.”

What’s the next focus of your research?

Our ongoing research is evaluating racial and ethnic disparities in how COVID-19 affects pregnant women, whether minority workers in North Carolina’s livestock industry are disproportionately affected, and whether ‘telemedicine’ during the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated disparities in access to medical care. We hope our findings will help inform public health policies in the region.

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