Peter Banwarth: Diving into the data on COVID-19 in Benton County

Jada Krening, News Reporter

This Q&A is the fifteenth in a 19-part series, “19 COVID-19 Stories,” updated on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, diving into the unique perspectives of the Corvallis community as they face COVID-19 and all its social and economic effects. 

Peter Banwarth is an epidemiologist and public health data scientist with the Benton County Health Department. 


How has your job changed since the arrival of COVID-19?

Well, I work almost completely by myself. I usually sit in a group of eight team members, and we work really closely together on finding ways to increase the health in our communities, and especially our vulnerable populations, and these days when I’m in the office—which is only about half the time, because the other half I’m with my kid at home, because my kid doesn’t have day care—but the other half I’m in here just totally by myself. So, that’s one way it’s changed.

Another way it’s changed is, because I’m working half time, all my time is spent working directly on trying to understand how the COVID-19 pandemic is affecting our communities here in Benton County.


How does COVID-19 differ from other pandemics or outbreaks you’ve studied or experienced?

I’ve been involved in two outbreaks here in Benton County since I started as an epidemiologist. One was a small foodborne illness outbreak centered around a single event—those definitely don’t go on for a very long time, but we did some of the same sort of stuff in terms of trying to find the people who were affected, trying to determine what was the cause of the illness and trying to educate those involved to lower the chance that it could happen again. 

The other outbreak I was involved in was the meningococcal B outbreak centered at Oregon State University a couple years ago. So, that was interesting—that technically lasted for close to two years, and there were only five or six cases associated with that outbreak over the course of two years. When a case would pop up, it would be maybe two weeks of all-hands-on-deck, find the people who were exposed to that case, get them proactive treatment if necessary, then things would kind of bubble down. 

The difference of course here since about March 1—so two and two-thirds months—I’ve been working on COVID-19 all day, every day that I’ve been working. Also, with the other two outbreaks, we fortunately didn’t have anyone die—it’s been very different here, knowing that we’ve already had deaths in our community. It makes it harder for all of us. And also knowing that we’re likely to have more—with our variety of epidemic modeling, we know that we are likely, almost certainly, going to have more individuals succumb to the disease in our community. So, it’s a heavy load on all of us, I think, but also drives us all to do our best.


Are you concerned the state of Oregon is reopening too quickly?

I think that the decision makers at all levels are having to make decisions with incomplete information. And that of course includes not having as much testing having been completed, and only now really reaching the testing capacity that gets us close to where we want to be. But, that also includes not really understanding what the next months or years would look like in the different potential scenarios that we’re considering. So, the decision makers are doing their best with incomplete information—having to weigh what the impact of the virus itself might have upon reopening, versus what the impact of a closed economy would have on the health and wellbeing of everyone in our communities over the next couple of years, how people would react. I mean, we have some ideas of what things will look like as we reopen, but we’re really not sure, and things could go really well, or things could not go so well based on how people respond and how the virus responds. And all of these factors—we have some indications, but it’s definitely incomplete information. So the position that our decision makers are in is extremely difficult. 

There are a couple extreme points. We know that if we just went back to the way things were in December of last year, the cases would increase wildly, and we would have a lot of impacts from that, and there would be a lot of really bad outcomes for a lot of people. We also know that if we kept things shut down the way they have been for the past two months, our economy will continue to suffer, which in turn leads to major negative impacts on health and wellbeing. So we kind of know the two poles—either one of which is really something that our communities can’t handle. So, where do we come down in the middle of that? I really can’t offer an opinion on whether we’re reopening too quickly, or too slowly or anything like that, because all the information I have is no better than the information that the other decision makers have. 

What I can say is that the decision makers, in my opinion, have done a good job in not choosing either pole—they’re not choosing just to let the virus run wild, and they’re not choosing to clamp down on everything forever. And I can tell you having been involved in some of our local decision making, and kept addressed of some of our broader state decision making—whether the decisions that are made turn out to be the best or not, I can’t say, but I do believe that there have been made here at the local level and at the state level with a lot of caution, with a lot of deliberation, and with a lot of attention paid to trying to make the best decision as possible, and not just the quickest or the most expedient decisions.


What has been the biggest challenge of the COVID-19 outbreak for you?

As an epidemiologist, I want to provide actionable data and actionable information to decision makers, and there’s so much that we don’t know about this disease that I’ve been able to develop some local models to make some projections about what things may look like in Benton County, but my confidence level on how actionable that information will be varies from day to day. Some days, I feel like yes, this is really going to be useful. Other days I feel like, without knowing more about this disease, I don’t even know if these models are good or not. So that’s certainly been a challenge for me—we know a lot about the biology of how diseases and viruses spread, but every day and every month that goes by, the ways our communities respond to those things change. 

You asked earlier how this has been different from other outbreaks or epidemics or pandemics that I’ve studied—the SARS pandemic in 2001-2002, that happened, on the one hand, before China was fully integrated into the world economy, so it was much easier to contain it within China and Hong Kong, et certa. And on the other hand, we didn’t have this ability to work remotely, to interact with people, to keep an economy going at whatever level without personal, face-to-face interactions. We didn’t have the ability to find a way to keep families together and see each other on a regular basis without them being in the same room. So, the way that our communities and societies have responded to this new virus is completely unprecedented, so that makes it really difficult to try to understand how the biology of the virus will interact with the ways in which our communities and our societies interact with each other.


What are the most important things people can do to prevent the spread of COVID-19?

You know, we hear a lot about public health, and that kind of has a connotation of a group of dedicated people doing their best to protect the health of all the public. But, there’s another side of that, which is public health as in the public working together to keep everybody healthy. So it’s not just the work of the individual, of an agency, of medical professionals—it’s the work of everybody. 

What I want people to keep in mind is that we are all, on the one hand responsible, and on the other hand able, to sustain the health of our neighbors, and our loved ones, and the people we see on the street, and the people in our community who maybe we never see. It takes all of us, working together—and working together for a long time in ways we maybe haven’t done before, or maybe we don’t really think about doing very often—in order to overcome this pandemic. 

The positive results we can get when we all think of ourselves as public health champions—it’s pretty impressive the positive results we can get when we do that, but it really takes all of us working together, and all of us doing our part. You’re protecting other people when you use physical distancing, even as you search for social connections. You’re protecting other people when you stay home for a week or more because you have a cough. You’re protecting other people when you get tested if you feel like you have symptoms. You’re protecting other people when you make sure that the specific resources that are needed to trace cases and things like that are available. The individual things we can do to keep our own health is very important, but remembering that by doing these things, you’re not just protecting your own health, but you’re saving the lives of people you may never have met, and you may never meet—I think that’s a pretty powerful thing for everybody to be able to do. 

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