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‘Those nerdy girls’ from Philadelphia, all female scientists, tackle COVID questions

Philadelphia scientists are among the women behind Dear Pandemic, a social media source of science-based COVID-19 information, explained in plain English.

Ashley Z. Ritter, CEO of Dear Pandemic reads some of the posts on the group's website and facebook pages while wearing a Dear Pandemic tee shirt  Thursday, August 05, 2021 at her home in Yardley, Pennsylvania. A group of Philadelphia-based scientists created Dear Pandemic last March to help friends, family and the public make sense of COVID-19.
Ashley Z. Ritter, CEO of Dear Pandemic reads some of the posts on the group's website and facebook pages while wearing a Dear Pandemic tee shirt Thursday, August 05, 2021 at her home in Yardley, Pennsylvania. A group of Philadelphia-based scientists created Dear Pandemic last March to help friends, family and the public make sense of COVID-19.Read moreWILIAM THOMAS CAIN/For The Inquirer

Stoked by fear of a virus that doctors and researchers knew little about, we wiped down our groceries, bought up every last roll of toilet paper, and researched how to make our own hand sanitizer.

Alison Buttenheim was no expert in infectious diseases, but as a social scientist and public health researcher, she felt compelled to help friends and family make sense of the novel coronavirus spreading quickly in the United States.

“Wash hands wash hands wash hands. Seriously, it’s like the Victory Garden equivalent of how we win this war against #COVID19US” Buttenheim, who is an associate professor of nursing and health policy at the University of Pennsylvania, tweeted in late February 2020.

She wasn’t alone.

“Maybe I’m the closest thing you personally know to an infectious disease epidemiologist,” Malia Jones, a social epidemiologist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, wrote at the beginning of an email to friends and family explaining how viruses spread and offering safety tips. People started sharing the email and it soon went viral.

That’s when the two friends decided to create Dear Pandemic — an online platform where no question was too basic or embarrassing, where answers would be backed by science and a “Dear Abby” kind of level-headed reason. The project was intended as a temporary public service, to help people get through a few tough weeks of uncertainty.

But it quickly ballooned from an Instagram account to include Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and a website with tens of thousands of followers. Over the last 18 months, national media outlets, the World Health Organization, and even Dr. Phil have all turned to the self-proclaimed “nerdy girls” for help deciphering the pandemic. Now, as the delta variant fuels more surges in cases, hospitalizations and deaths, largely among the unvaccinated, their help is in high demand.

“The satisfaction for me is in knowing that we have helped people navigate difficult decisions, uncertainty, and the ‘information overwhelm,’” Buttenheim said. “I’m proud that we are a trusted resource for so many — trust really is our engine and our currency.”

Within weeks of launching in spring 2020, the pair had built up a roster of scientists — all women with Ph.D.s or medical degrees — who volunteered to help answer common questions, such as:

  1. How do I choose the best face mask? Answer: Pick one with a snug fit and adjustable nose piece made from a non-woven material. Avoid masks with ventilation valves.

  2. How can I stay safe using a public restroom? Answer: Wear a mask, avoid touching surfaces as much as possible, wash your hands well, use a paper towel or tissue to handle the faucet.

  3. Should I go to a “COVID party” to get sick and get it over with? Answer: No. Or as Amanda Simanek, a social epidemiologist at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee put it, “For the love of peanut butter and jelly, please NO, 1000 X NO!”

Much of Dear Pandemic’s work aims to explain science concepts that can help people better understand what is happening during the pandemic and how to cope, said Ashley Z. Ritter, a geriatric nurse practitioner at Penn and a founding member of the platform.

“We want it to sound like it comes from your neighbor who happens to have a Ph.D.,” said Ritter, who currently serves as the organization’s CEO, and who first suggested that Buttenheim and Jones post their pandemic advice on social media.

For instance, when followers questioned whether staying home and social isolation would weaken their immune systems, Ritter explained the difference between the friendly microbes that exist everywhere and the unfriendly microbes, which make people sick without any benefit to the immune system.

“Play in the dirt. Embrace the three-second rule. Avoid unnecessary exposure to viruses,” Ritter wrote.

And when asked whether COVID-19 could cause erectile dysfunction, Dear Pandemic editor-in-chief Jennifer Beam Dowd, an associate professor of demography and population health at the University of Oxford, wrote that, yes, it was possible, due to the virus’ effect on inflammation and the vascular system.

“But as with much COVID-19 research more, ahem, hard data is needed,” she wrote.

The group had as many as 30 contributors last summer, and currently has 15 women who regularly contribute.

The operation is almost entirely volunteer, though they do pay a graphic designer and received a grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to enlist racially diverse visiting experts.

“We wanted to make sure we were writing from and for a diverse set of perspectives,” Buttenheim said.

In October, they launched a Spanish-language version of the website, Querida Pandemia.

The group has also made sure its panel of experts address topics beyond infectious disease science.

Aparna Kumar, a psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner and assistant professor at Jefferson College of Nursing, never considered herself much of a writer, but accepted Ritter’s invitation because she knew people were struggling with mental health. She wanted to offer advice some people may not feel comfortable asking for because of potential stigma.

“It brought a lot of joy through purpose. It’s been meaningful. I can use my skills — I’m not a nurse in a hospital, but I’m still able to do something,” she said.

In November, she explained exponential math — the way a virus multiplies — using pom pom visuals, and told readers who may be feeling helpless and trapped by the pandemic that what they do today matters tomorrow.

She’s also tackled how uncertainty fuels anxiety and, now that the delta variant is driving up cases again, how to cope with anger.

The questions, which followers can submit through the Dear Pandemic website, are increasingly difficult to answer because there is still much unknown.

Among the biggest challenges is how to talk to people about vaccination, when the vast majority of those who remain unvaccinated don’t plan to get the shot.

Buttenheim thinks the best way to convince holdouts is through one-on-one conversations, where they have an opportunity to voice their concerns and feel they’ve been heard. Bringing the conversation to primary care practices, where providers tend to have strong, long-lasting relationships with patients, and where it may be possible to make vaccination a standard part of care, could be particularly effective.

As always, Buttenheim said, it is important to stick to facts: No vaccine offers 100% protection from infection. You can get vaccinated and develop mild symptoms if you contract COVID-19, or you can go without the vaccine and risk severe illness or even death.

“Which version do you want?” she said.