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Sifting and Winnowing COVID Facts

Professor Ajay Sethi has become a go-to source for finding good pandemic information — and avoiding misinformation.

Ajay Sethi, associate professor of population health sciences in the School of Medicine and Public Health (SMPH) at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, is pictured in a studio portrait at the University of Wisconsin–Madison on Dec. 20, 2021. Sethi is an expert on infectious disease epidemiology.(Photo by Althea Dotzour / UW–Madison)

Professor Ajay Sethi has become a go-to source for finding good pandemic information — and avoiding misinformation.

Ajay Sethi, an infectious diseases epidemiologist, came to the UW in the mid 2000s, inspired by the School of Medicine’s evolution into the School of Medicine and Public Health. “I was really just intrigued and impressed by the transformation,” he says. “I had done my training at a school of public health and felt like this was a great place to continue my sort of career.” 

Although much of his early research was in HIV/AIDS, his attention these last two years has turned to the current global crisis. “Obviously, I’m focused on the pandemic we’re dealing with now in COVID-19,” he says. Since 2020, he’s gone from quiet scientist to public figure, having been interviewed in the media in more than 300 times. On February 1, he’ll make his fourth appearance on The UW Now.

Chief Area of Research:

I’ve always incorporated some element of behavioral science in my research, just thinking about what types of behaviors may prevent the spread of infectious diseases. We can talk about mitigation to stop transmission, but it’s important to go a little upstream. People are perfectly capable of washing hands, keeping distance, wearing a mask, being mindful of preventing themselves from picking up an infection. Lack of knowledge isn’t preventing us from managing this pandemic, individually or as a society; it’s the divisions that we have in society that prevent us, collectively, from moving on. This is why I also have a side interest in understanding the effects of misinformation and how to overcome that through productive conversations between people who disagree.

On The UW Now, I’ll Discuss:

I’ll talk about what we’ve learned with each wave of the pandemic and how the variants have been a little different. And I’ll mention vaccines in their important role. I’ll try to also touch on the topic of misinformation and how it continues to persist. To move forward as a society, you not only have to think about the next variant that may emerge, but also how to combat misinformation and misunderstandings of what the future may hold. There are a lot of people who are still hoping for herd immunity or that the disease is going to get milder, and there’s no guarantee for that. And I’ll put a plug in for rethinking our global vaccination efforts. Too many countries are far behind in vaccination.

One Thing I’d Like Viewers to Remember Is:

Unfortunately, this topic of herd immunity is coming back up again because of omicron. It’s unfortunate because there aren’t examples of herd immunity in our society, with the exception of smallpox, where we were able to eradicate a disease. And rinderpest, if you want to include cattle in our society. A lot of pathogens have gone away because the dynamics of their transmission were unfavorable, but we aren’t left with some kind of wall of protection that herd immunity implies. 

To Get Smart Fast, Read:

I really value reporting that’s come out of Vox and also the Atlantic. Vox's motto is to explain the news, and I’ve appreciated what they’ve done just as a service to society. And for data, I go to the New York Times.

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