Interview with Professor Marie Pizzorno

Noemi Pedraza-Aguado, Contributing Writer

This week, The Bucknellian spoke with Associate Professor of Biology Marie Pizzorno to discuss the current COVID-19 pandemic and what steps the University community can take to limit the spread of the virus.


How have your classes been impacted?

To reduce the number of people in the room at one time, I have decided to teach half [of my nearly 75 students] in class and half on Zoom, with each group going back and forth between the two. Managing all of the technology before class starts and making sure my students on Zoom don’t get forgotten during class is taking a great deal of mental energy.


What are some conflicts that have arisen in your classes? 

I haven’t had any major conflicts. Managing the technology is rough — making sure the Zoom students can hear me, see me and get my attention when they have a question is tricky. My students appear to be very compliant with the masking and distancing rules and I have explained to them the scientific reasons why those behaviors are so important — especially right now while we see how these first few weeks go.


I know you were also part of the safety and health committee for fall planning. How well do you think the school and students have been following the protocols that were set up?

I have been pleased to see students wearing masks in class and on campus. Sometimes they slip beneath their nose — I know it is hard to keep them on for a whole day. I worry about student’s inability to stay six feet apart. I worry about the large groups of students eating outside at the round tables. Part of me understands — eating is a social behavior and you can’t eat with a mask on. But the virologist in me worries that this is a possible time for exposing other people to the virus. In the end, we will see how this grand experiment works out. But we all have to try to do these things as much as we possibly can, even though it is really hard. Because of asymptomatic spread, someone could be infectious and not know it and then spread it to others. That is what I worry about the most.


Are there any concerns about activities on campus that might endanger the health of others?

Two major points here:  The first is going to large gatherings (even outdoors). Wearing a mask helps cut down on the spread, but can’t prevent it 100 percent. The other point is going off-campus and interacting with other people. Even if the campus has low levels of virus, someone could travel and bring it back without even knowing. And no visitors either. I know being away from family, friends and off-campus significant others for 14 weeks is hard. But it is what we all need to do to keep the entire campus safe.

This is one of the most unusual viruses I have seen in my long career of teaching and learning about viruses. It produces everything from no symptoms to severe disease and death. There are very few viruses that have that range of pathology. We know some of the factors that lead to severe disease and death, but not all of them. And not all college-aged people will have completely mild infections. I have heard of students who had the virus back in March and still have problems breathing even now. So please don’t think you are invincible. And even if you do have a mild infection, you don’t want to pass it to faculty, staff or someone in town who might not be so lucky.

The large percentage of people without symptoms who can spread the virus to others is a huge problem. Or the symptoms are so mild that you mistake them for a cold or even allergies. Previous viruses in this group, – like the original SARS in 2002-2003, had well documented “superspreading events.” This is where a single infected person passed the virus on to many other people (20, 30, even 100). Those are the kinds of events we have to avoid if we want to still be in person in November. That is where avoiding large parties, particularly where you don’t wear a mask.


What things do you think could improve in the upcoming weeks?

Wearing masks, staying distanced, limiting the number of people you hang out with, particularly while inside or not wearing a mask. The more people you interact with, the more opportunities you have to either catch the virus or give the virus to someone else. Sign up for testing when it is your turn. And most important: stay in your room if you don’t feel well, and contact Student Health.

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