Biology Teacher Deanne Peterson Breaks Down the Science Behind COVID-19


Photo courtesy of NPR

A woman in New York wears a surgical mask amid fears of coronavirus.

Oliver Hurst and Carson Ankeny

The following article is the third in a series about the ongoing COVID-19 outbreak. Other articles in the series can be found here.

For this article, the Blue and Gold interviewed Deann Peterson, an AP Biology and physics teacher at Chamblee Charter High School, to gain insight into the biological perspective of the virus, as we attempt to breakdown the most common questions circulating in the midst of the outbreak.


THE BLUE & GOLD: How does the coronavirus affect the body?

PETERSON: So this form of coronavirus is what we call a novel coronavirus, which means that it’s brand new. We’ve never seen this version of it before. There have been lots of other coronaviruses, which are the kind [of virus] that affects the lungs, [but] they won’t affect your intestinal system and they don’t necessarily affect your sinuses, they just go straight for the lungs because that’s where their proteins match the shape of your proteins. So it’s the cough that is often the first indicator and a fever is often the second indicator that you have been hit by this coronavirus. [These symptoms] may not be the same for everybody, you might have neither of those and be a carrier.


Are masks effective against the coronavirus? 

So, the general word is that people say that masks are ineffective. But I disagree to a point with that. A mask is just a form of filter. And viruses are tiny. So can they make their way through a filter? Absolutely, they can. So a mask is inefficient, ineffective to completely prevent you from getting the disease. Only a hazmat suit is the kind of thing that will make you not be affected. But it’s still really effective at reducing your viral load, the amount of virus that you receive. And why is that important? Well, the amount of virus you receive from an exposure lets your immune system fight it. If you get a small exposure, your immune system will probably say I got this, no problem, and fight it and be done with it. If you get a large viral exposure and it has a chance to incubate, your immune system is going to say, give me five or six days to figure this out, and I’m gonna make you feel really poorly as we do this. I’m gonna give you a fever, I’m gonna make you sleep, I’m gonna make you cough; all of those are immune responses from the virus and so a mask would both protect you from a bit from the quantity of virus that you might receive, but it certainly helps keep you from spreading. If you happen to have the virus, it’ll help prevent it from being spread to everybody else. They’re effective. Why do doctors wear them in the surgery room? Why have dentists wear them in the dentist’s office? They’re effective. They’re just not going to prevent you from getting the disease but they are going to reduce the amount [of the virus] that you receive.


What symptoms and other qualities differentiate it from other respiratory illnesses like the flu and pneumonia?

You don’t know until you get tested. And so if you’ve got any [symptoms of respiratory illnesses], just a really good word of advice, if you can stay home, stay home. Sleep it off, let your immune system do its job. Stay hydrated. And if it starts to get worse than obviously you would want to go get tested, but the tests may or may not be available because that’s been part of the problem is having enough tests to test the population.


What is the point behind containment measures, like canceling school?

You’ll see online that there’s two graphs where one has a really high peak of the number of cases that you have in a certain period of time, and then there’s another graph, that’s a much lower, flatter curve, of which there’s a number of cases over time. And when you have a high peak, what [happens] is you have more people than what the medical facilities can treat. And if you don’t have enough medical facilities to treat people, they die because they’re not able to seek out treatment. And what we want to do is  reduce the spread, and this [coronavirus] spreads really easy, we want to reduce the rapidity of the spread, and extend it over a little bit longer time. What that does is it keeps the number of cases below the maximum amount that can be supported by our healthcare facilities.

Photo courtesy of the New York Times
An example of the epidemic curve explained by Peterson.


Why is the coronavirus such a big deal, despite having a relatively low death rate?

Well, it’s got a higher mortality rate than the flu. And that’s the biggest problem. It also is targeting older people and so the older people actually have an even higher mortality rate than the general population. This one’s an interesting [virus] in that, more than likely, over the longer period of time because so many younger people are asymptomatic, meaning they don’t have any symptoms, that we will actually see the death rate potentially go down. But we won’t know that for about three years. So we won’t see the actual death rate data for years down the road, but right now it is running at a much higher rate at about 2-3% versus that of influenza, which is about 0.1%.


What do you recommend regarding travel? 

If it’s optional, don’t go. If you have somebody in your family that you are taking care of that’s older then you should use all of the personal protective equipment [possible] to reduce exposure to them. But even if you’re young and you’re probably not going to necessarily have severe symptoms, you could still be a really primary promoter of it. And what you don’t want to do is take and spread it more than it’s already spreading. We’ve really got to, as I say, #flattenthecurve. We’ve got to keep it below what our medical facilities can handle.


What are some forms of personal protection equipment (PPE) that regular people can use?

I’m a big fan of masks, I bought a mask myself, and washing your hands. That’s not equipment, but that’s a behavior that you should really, really do because your hands are the primary transmitter of just about every kind of virus or bacteria under the sun. Changing gloves, not hugging, not kissing, no hand shaking. If you’re starting to feel poorly, you stay three feet away because that’s about the length of your spit, or your sneeze or whatever. That would transport it through the air and then keeping surfaces clean. Like in my classroom, we can wipe down desks and anytime I leave the wipes out for students to be able to clean on their desk whenever they want to.


How long do you believe this outbreak will last?

Oh, god, that’s a great question. And that’s one I can’t even prognosticate because looking at the number of cases versus time graph, we don’t know what the scale is on time with this. And again, because it’s a novel virus. And all we can do is look at history. The only other one that’s like this is the 1918 flu pandemic, but we know so much more than we did in 1918. It’s really hard to judge the scale of this. All we can do is watch what’s happening in China, South Korea, and Italy, and see what kind of curve that [this coronavirus has]. That’s it, who knows what it’ll look like.


How do you predict the virus is going to continue to spread?

Oh, when we keep having gatherings like sports games and you get 70,000 people together and they’re probably sharing [the virus]. So anytime that you have a big gathering, there’s a high potential of things being spread easily. You can have just one person that they’re shedding [the virus] and they don’t know it. And it can go from person to person to person really, really easily. And that especially like in a soccer game where everybody’s yelling and screaming and exuding body fluids out of their mouth as they yell and scream. That’s a really easy way to spread, actually a fairly high quantity of virus.


While Peterson is extremely knowledgeable surrounding the biology and immunology of the novel coronavirus, she is not a trained medical professional. Please consult your doctor if you are worried that you have contracted the coronavirus.