A virtual sitdown with Karen Cowgill

Talking to Epidemiologist Karen Cowgill about the work she’s done and her thoughts on the epidemic.

In an interview with Karen Cowgill, an Affiliate Assistant Professor at the University of Washington Department of Global Health, she spoke on the work being done within the University of Washington on COVID-19 research. Cowgill has an eclectic background. After completing an undergraduate degree in biology, she was initially drawn to clinical health. Initially being unaware and uninterested in the field of public health, as many who may have had her class will have heard already “The School of Public Health was right across from the School of Nursing” — and the rest is history. 

Cowgill shared her thoughts on COVID-19 regarding a number of things. When prompted on the seemingly constant fluctuation of infection rate — that over the course of the last six months there seems to be no consistent rate of infection or consistent change in rate — Cowgill explained that while its difficult to understand the exact causes of communicability, the tendency for a disease to be transmitted from one infected individual to another, she suspected it has to do with pockets of activity.

“We probably have smaller networks where we are getting a lot of transmissions sustained over a short period of time. That network may then have a reduction in case numbers due to either control measures being implemented, such as mask wearing and social distancing,” Cowgill said, “or in some cases, though I think this is relatively rare, in a defined network you may have some herd immunity developing. But we are certainly very far away from having herd immunity at a national level.”

Within networks, should there be an import of infection into a network that has yet to be exposed, especially without the adoption of  Non-Pharmaceutical Interventions — things such as wearing masks,, keeping distance and washing hands —  you could see a surge of infection.

Cowgill became interested in infectious diseases both from a biological angle and from an equity angle, first getting a masters degree in Public Health before obtaining her doctorate in Epidemiology and a second masters in Medical Parasitology.  

Cowgill also mentioned that documented  reinfection with the novel coronavirus is rare. Her more pressing concern is long term immunity.

“With any pathogen it is normal that some people will quickly mount an effective immune response and some people will never mount an effective immune response, and some people will be sort of in the middle,” Cowgill said. “And the people who dont mount an immune response or whose immune response is not very effective are a tiny tiny minority compared to those who do mount an effective immune response”

She explained that the virus has not been around long enough to see how immunity will persist over time. Anyone who had a weak immune response is likely to be able to be reinfected simply due to the nature of our immune systems, and this is not unique to COVID-19. The real concern is when individuals who had strong immune responses begin to show reinfection down the road. 

“What I’m more concerned about is people whose initial immune response is good and strong and are initially protected against reinfection but whose immune response wanes over time. What we don’t know is over three to five years.”

Cowgill emphasized that a measured, reasonable safety precaution is important to handle the COVID-19 response. While maintaining six feet social distancing and wearing a mask are still important, contact tracing, to her, is another important tool in halting the spread of any communicable disease. Contact tracing involves finding someone who has tested positive may have come in contact with during their incubation period, and alerting those individuals that they should quarantine.