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Dr. Karen DeSalvo on “putting information first” during COVID-19

Dr. Karen DeSalvo

Dr. Karen DeSalvo knows how to deal with a crisis. She was New Orleans Health Commissioner following Hurricane Katrina and a senior official at the Department of Health and Human Services when Ebola broke out. And now, as Google’s Chief Health Officer, she’s become the company’s go-to medical expert, advising our leaders on how to react to the coronavirus. Dr. DeSalvo has been a voice of reassurance for Googlers, but her expertise is helpful outside of Google, too. I recently spoke to Dr. DeSalvo about how we’ll get through the crisis, what Google is doing to help and what makes her optimistic despite the challenges we face. 


How is the coronavirus different from other public health crises you’ve dealt with? 
In my work in New Orleans, whether it was a hurricane, a fire or a power outage, we drew resources from other parts of the country if we needed help. In this case, the entire world has been impacted. Everyone is living with uncertainty, disrupted supply chains, impacts on travel and social infrastructure. While this creates a sense of community that I hope will continue beyond the pandemic, the downside is that we have less opportunity to send assistance to other places. Where there is opportunity, we’ve seen people paying it forward, like when California deployed ventilators to the East Coast. The sense of community that grows out of any disaster is the bright spot, for me.


How are industries sharing ideas and research in this global crisis?
Physicians are using technology to talk to each other constantly about what they’re seeing and doing, and in prior outbreaks this real-time communication wasn’t possible. It makes a huge difference in clinical care. In the medical community, you sometimes have to pay for a journal article. But now if you want to read about COVID-19, it’s free for any researcher, scientist, clinician or layperson. That’s putting information first, putting knowledge and science above proprietary interest. 

It’s happening in science, too. For instance, there’s a collaboration between competitors in the private sector on designing trials and assessing the outcome of drugs and vaccines. At Google, our Deepmind colleagues were able to use deep learning to show protein folding, helping advance the thinking about therapeutics and vaccines. I don’t think we’ve seen this spirit of collaboration in the history of science, and it’s one of the reasons I’m so optimistic. 

What is Google doing to help curb misinformation?
In this historic moment, access to the right information at the right time will save lives. Period. This is why our Search teams design our ranking systems to promote the most relevant and reliable information available. We build these protections in advance so they’re ready when a crisis hits, and this approach serves as a strong defense against misinformation.  

When COVID-19 began to escalate, we built features on top of those fundamental protections to help people find information from local health authorities. We initially launched an SOS alert with the World Health Organization to make resources about COVID-19 easily discoverable. This has evolved into an expanded Search experience, providing easy access to more authoritative information, alongside new data and visualizations. 

We’re surfacing content that’s accessible to a whole range of communities, and there’s constant vigilance to remove misinformation on platforms like YouTube—this includes videos or other information that could be harmful to people.

Search COVID GIF

COVID-19 information on Search. 

What does it mean to be Google’s Chief Health Officer?
My role is to bring a holistic view of emotional, physical and social health and well-being to Google’s products and services, particularly under Google Health. During this pandemic, my team has also thought about how Google can assist public health efforts. This has meant anything from the Community Mobility Reports, a tool to help measure the impact of social distancing, to building playlists in partnership with YouTube geared towards clinicians, and showing testing sites for COVID-19 all over the world.


In the general public, what behaviors or mentalities have arisen that should continue in the future?
First, there are fundamental ways to reduce the transmission of communicable diseases like the flu or, in some communities, measles or tuberculosis. If you’re able to, it’s important to stay home if you’re sick, wash your hands, cough into your elbow—I call these the “Grandma rules.” Second, there are a lot of components to health: social health, emotional well-being, financial stability. Health is driven by more than just medical care, and this is a moment for us to remember that a holistic approach matters. 


What should business owners consider for when restrictions begin to lift?
They need to prepare for a world in which employees can work remotely as much as possible. Policies will still recommend social distancing, but we also need to create an environment where people who are sick feel comfortable staying home. That’s not realistic for every small business, so paying attention to the basic hygiene stuff—Do the Five—is also important. 


After Katrina, there was this time when the world was paying attention and trying to help, but the emotional and social impact on our community lasted for months. There will be some of that after this pandemic, because you can’t just flip a switch and have people go back to work. That’s the important thing—being patient as people put themselves back into a normal routine. 

Health is driven by more than just medical care, and this is a moment for us to remember that a holistic approach matters.

Taking off your Chief Health Officer hat, how do you reassure friends and family when they’re worried about this situation?
Medically, we need to be patient and let the scientists do their thing. It’s probably going to take until summer or early fall in the northern hemisphere to get clarity on what therapeutics work. The end game is to develop a vaccine so we can make sure everybody is protected. This is going to be a long journey with many months ahead, so we need to pace ourselves. 

Statistically, more people will have anxiety and depression from COVID-19 than will actually get COVID-19. To share tips on mental well-being, we recently launched the “Be Kind To Your Mind” PSA on Google Search.

Lastly, I remind those who are privileged to have a safe space to stay home when other people can’t. I think about my previous work with low income patients, and how this crisis impacts them as well as communities of color, non-native English speakers, and individuals with disabilities. Staying home is not safe, comfortable and financially feasible for everybody. We should all be doing what we can for our neighbors and our friends and the people who aren’t always seen.