From Ebola to Coronavirus: A Q&A with Dr. Dan Kelly



Dr. Dan Kelly in Liberia (second from right), December 2019. (Photo Courtesy of Dan Kelly)
Dr. Dan Kelly in Liberia (second from right), December 2019. (Photo Courtesy of Dan Kelly)

Dr. Dan Kelly was in Sierra Leone during the worst of the 2014 Ebola outbreak.

He had founded Wellbody Alliance in 2006 to provide health care for vulnerable communities in Sierra Leone. Today, Wellbody Alliance treats about 60,000 patients annually.

In an interview with Direct Relief on February 20, Kelly, who now works at UCSF, said he sees both positives and negatives in how public health officials are conducting their responses to the COVID-19 coronavirus in both West Africa and the Bay Area, where he is now based.

The following responses have been lightly edited:

Direct Relief: You traveled to Liberia earlier this month. What were your impressions of that nation’s response to the COVID-19 (coronavirus) epidemic?

Dr. Dan Kelly: They’re really on point with screening for coronavirus already. Because of the Ebola experience, people are trained, they know what to do. They’re able to actually react really quickly. When I arrived, I was immediately screened for coronavirus. They had thermal guns to check my temperature, hand washing stations, and they handed out face masks, gloves, and other personal protection equipment to travelers.

There’s a lot of concern that African nations are unprepared and at-risk, because of the connections to China. The strengthening and capacity building that occurred during the Ebola crisis limited the pandemic potential during this epidemic.

Direct Relief: Based on your experiences in Sierra Leone during the 2014 Ebola outbreak, how would you characterize the response here in the U.S. so far?

Kelly: We are seeing institutions like UCSF, and different hospitals in the Bay Area, react quicker than they did to Ebola. They set up case definitions really fast. People have a greater preparedness in general.

Direct Relief: What is your opinion of the military base and cruise ship quarantines?

Kelly:  During the Ebola outbreak, we were being quarantined in our houses. So, we were using tech, using (Apple) FaceTime, temperature checks… There is no reason why we couldn’t do home quarantines.

In Sierra Leone, it wasn’t perfect, but I think that it was definitely effective. I can’t recall too many cases occurring from someone who was quarantined and doing something they weren’t supposed to do.

It’s more humane to let people be at home. We should trust each other a bit more.

Dr. Dan Kelly. (Photo Courtesy of Dan Kelly)
Dr. Dan Kelly. (Photo Courtesy of Dan Kelly)

Direct Relief: Overall, how serious of a threat to global health is COVID-19 or do you think it will become?

Kelly: I’m not overly concerned about coronavirus. It is very similar to flu and, you know, people do get infected. Most people are surviving (COVID-19) and, yeah, it is true we don’t have a vaccine for it, but there are a lot of people who get the flu who don’t get a vaccine.

People aren’t scared or concerned about the flu, it seems like, even though 10 or even 100 times more people get infected with it.

When something is unknown, there is a fear of contagion, there is a level of anxiety… It captures the mind in a different way.

Direct Relief: What are some of the lessons the public health care community has already learned from this latest viral outbreak?

Kelly: There are some unfortunate negatives: people are still suffering and people are dying. Even though it’s not equivalent to Ebola, there is a certain amount of strain on the health system that is important to acknowledge.

It seems like China is struggling to do enough diagnostics. The systems aren’t ready for it… It’s an opportunity to think about better ways to control this, and about how to quarantine people.

Overall, I think we’re doing pretty well in responding, in Liberia and the Bay Area. It’s a tough situation, without a diagnostic, but with screening and identifying cases, I’ve been really impressed with the responsiveness. Direct Relief’s efforts are also part of the reason we’re seeing the effectiveness today. I’m proud of how hard people are working here and in West Africa to help keep the world safe.

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