K Alumna, Epidemiologist Addresses Delta Variant, COVID-19 Vaccines

Natasha Bagdasarian Discusses the COVID-19 delta variant and vaccines
Natasha Bagdasarian ’99

Natasha Bagdasarian ’99 read a book while she was studying abroad as a Kalamazoo College student in Perth, Australia, that changed the trajectory of her career. The Hot Zone, a book about investigating Ebola outbreaks, captivated her and guided her all the way through medical school with a goal of one day working in outbreaks.

In December 2019, Bagdasarian was working as an infectious disease physician and epidemiologist at National University Hospital in Singapore when COVID-19 began spreading in Wuhan, China. The pandemic quickly reached Singapore, partly because of the number of direct flights that arrived daily from Wuhan.

If there was good news at that time, it was that Singapore had learned much of what it needed to do for an epidemic like COVID-19 during the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) outbreak in the early 2000s. Armed with that knowledge, Bagdasarian and her team successfully prevented all health care workers and non-COVID-19 patients at the hospital from contracting the virus despite managing more than 1,500 beds.

Bagdasarian later returned to Michigan with her husband, Vahan Bagdasarian ’99, and their child last summer. She now works for the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services as a senior public health physician and consults for the World Health Organization. She also wrote an op-ed for the Huffington Post published August 14 that discussed her family’s own experiences with COVID-19. We caught up with Bagdasarian to discuss COVID-19’s delta variant, K’s plan for a full return to in-person instruction this fall, and why it’s necessary to mask up when students on campus must be vaccinated.

What is the COVID-19 delta variant?

“We know that anytime a virus spreads through a community, the more it’s transmitted, the more opportunities that virus has to mutate. The delta variant is one of those mutations. It’s been classified as a variant of concern, meaning it has some properties that make it more threatening to us. Specifically, we’ve found that the delta variant is more transmissible than the original strain that we saw back in the beginning of the pandemic. It’s also more transmissible than the alpha strain, which we had been so worried about a few months ago when it caused a huge wave of infections here in Michigan and around the country.”

What are the delta variant and COVID-19 trends that should concern us most in Michigan?

“We’re seeing an uptick in cases not just in Michigan, but really around the country. The other trend we look at is our percent positivity rate. Percent positivity measures how many tests are coming back positive out of all tests conducted in a certain area. Whenever we’re heading toward a surge of cases, we start seeing that number bump up. Of the people who are being tested, more of them are testing positive for COVID.”

Why is it important to continue masking indoors if so many students, faculty and staff have been vaccinated?

“We have a variety of ways to prevent transmission of COVID, and vaccines, I would say, are the single best tool that we have available. We know vaccines are highly efficacious, even in the face of new variants, especially when it comes to severe infections, hospitalizations and deaths. We know that the vaccines are going to save lives and have already saved lives. But what we’re seeing with delta is there can be breakthrough infections, meaning an infection after someone is fully vaccinated. A person with a breakthrough case can still potentially transmit that infection on, so relying on just one of our mitigation strategies is not a good idea.

“When we’re heading toward a potential surge of cases, it really makes sense to use as many strategies as we can. Since the beginning of the pandemic, we’ve talked about a layering of precautions. We call it the Swiss cheese model of risk mitigation. Each single mitigation measure, each single strategy has holes. No strategy is going to be 100 percent effective at stopping transmission of the virus. But if you stack up enough slices of Swiss cheese, even though there are holes, you can plug those gaps, and it’s less likely to allow a transmission to occur. If we do things like vaccinate everyone who can be vaccinated, wear masks when we’re indoors, make sure our ventilation is good, and avoid very large gatherings, that’s our best bet at preventing outbreaks.”

Should students, faculty and staff on vaccinated college campuses feel safe attending in-person classes and events this fall?

“Generally, the classroom has been a relatively safe place for people to gather. That’s for a number of reasons. In a classroom setting, people are generally following the rules. They’re generally spaced apart. They’re generally wearing their masks. We know that schools and colleges around the country have made sure their air-handling systems are up to snuff. The places that tend to be riskier are those where people are gathering for social purposes where they are removing their masks, bringing lots of people close together, and especially when those people are unvaccinated. There’s no ‘this is low risk, this is high risk.’ It’s all a spectrum. But the more strategies we can stack on top of vaccines, the safer an environment becomes.”

If the vaccine is the best tool we have available, how do we convince everyone that it’s safe?

“We know that these vaccines are incredibly safe and effective because they’ve been studied extensively. We have an adverse-symptom reporting system where adverse events are monitored very closely, and this is incredible technology. In fact, when I talk about the pandemic and whether anything good has come from it, these vaccines are the silver lining. We now are able to make vaccines using mRNA technology, which makes vaccines very quickly and effectively.”

How can we encourage those concerned about their individual liberties to get vaccinated?

“I think that’s a difficult question. Many people have strong feelings about this. My area of expertise is not really in individual liberties, but I can tell you that if I were still a student at Kalamazoo College right now, it would make me feel safer if I knew that vaccines were being required of everyone. That would make me personally feel safer, and I can tell you these vaccines are incredibly safe and effective.”

Is there any other message you’d like to share with our students, faculty and staff?

“I hope everyone has a productive and safe return to college campuses. This requires a collective approach to keeping people safe. It requires communities coming together with vaccinations and wearing masks. Doing these things individually are less effective than doing them as a community.”