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Choices, choices

  • An illustration of a man in a HAZMAT suit spraying a hose

    Choices, choices

    How are CVM’s COVID-19 researchers navigating a more locked-down lifestyle?

Researchers at the University of Minnesota College of Veterinary Medicine have had their work lives commandeered by COVID-19. But while those researching the virus and the havoc it wreaks advance on COVID-19 by improving testing mechanisms, anticipating disease spread, producing accessible treatment options, and developing a vaccine, they’re also faced with the same tough choices we all deal with every day of this pandemic. But how does their knowledge of this virus impact the decisions they make?

Masking up

What kind of mask do you wear and why? What kinds work best for you? 

Matthew Aliota: I wear multi-layered cloth masks and recently found some merino wool ones that are really nice—better at odor control. I like outdoor activities and several outdoor brands have shifted to making masks, so I have bought some of those. In general, the most important thing is to find a mask that fits well and is comfortable. 

Hinh Ly: We usually wear cloth face masks when we are out and about (but not when exercising outdoors) and use N-95 face masks when visiting any facilities (medical clinics, eye clinics, etc.). Our twin sons and their peers wear cloth face masks when they are out of the pool. 

Montserrat Torremorell: Cloth mask in most instances. I will use something with more protection if I feel I am going to a high-risk exposure setting.

Do you wear a mask when you go for a run, walk, or bike ride outside? Will the change in seasons impact your decision-making?

Aliota: Yes I do! Distance is really hard to judge, so better to err on the side of caution and mask up. As a virologist, I believe it is incumbent upon me to lead by example. And no, the season change won't affect my decision. The risk is essentially the same in poorly ventilated indoor spaces all year round. 

Staying healthy

What are you doing differently for your health and wellbeing?

Aliota: Nothing drastically different, but now more than ever, I am making sure to focus on mental and physical health. Prioritizing exercising and celebrating small victories, no matter how small.

Tom Molitor: I have gone from 2 hours/day driving to and from campus to 1-2 hours in walking, using the Social Steps APP on my phone. It fulfills the competitive need and enhances my mental and physical health. 

When a vaccine becomes widely available, will you get it? 

Aliota: Yes! Because vaccines are safe and they work. 

Meggan Craft: I do plan to get it when it becomes available for those of us "nonessential" workers. 

Are you doing physically-distanced social outings? 

Aliota: No—we maintain a bubble that includes just our household, so no playdates, etc. We do spend time outdoors at state parks, local hiking trails, etc. but do so early in the morning to avoid crowds.  

Ly: Almost on a daily basis, my twin boys take long jogs with their mother early in the morning at a local park near where we live in order to avoid a big crowd. On most evenings, I take them (the twins and sometimes their mother) to play tennis with me on courts at either the local parks or in our own backyard. During these outdoor activities, we keep a safe distance from others who happened to also enjoy themselves at the park.

Torremorell: Yes, practicing it as much as we can and what's realistic, but the reality is that our social outings have been decreased to the bare minimum. 

Kids and family

Are you sending your children to daycare? 

Craft: At first I wasn’t going to send my kiddo back to daycare until there was a vaccine, but after the initial excitement wore off, our little extrovert wasn’t happy at home with two ‘boring’ parents. We decided to send her back part-time in July for the social interactions. She is now back full time and loves it. We are very happy with the precautions the center is taking to keep everyone safe (e.g. consistent pods of kids and mask-wearing even outside).

Torremorell: Yes, my 4-year-old daughter has been back to daycare since July and that has been great for her and for us. So far so good regarding COVID but we can't take it for granted. 

Are your kids back in school in person? How is that making you feel?

Aliota: No, we have decided to keep our first-grader home when her school started using a hybrid model. It frustrates me that making school safe hasn’t been a bigger priority on the local and national level. But we are lucky to have the flexibility to make this decision. Part of our rationale was that keeping her home would make it safer for those that don’t have the same level of flexibility guiding their decision-making. But our district has since moved into full distance learning.

Ly: My twin boys are teenagers, who have decided to continue their virtual learning when their middle school commences in early September. They have also been taking private lessons (e.g., piano, writing, and other lessons) virtually and twice-weekly swim training with a very limited number of other swimmers at a local pool. Activities at the swimming pool have been severely restricted and closely monitored to try to keep things safe (and still somewhat fun) for the children.

Torremorell: My 7-year-old son has started in-person classes. The school has made significant changes to its procedures to keep the kids in clusters and has implemented enhanced biosecurity measures. So far, it’s going well. We have adapted to a new routine for drop-offs and pick-ups and not letting my son attend the before and after school programs. 

Do you put masks on your kids?

Aliota: Yes! Kids are susceptible to COVID-19 and spread the virus efficiently. 

Craft: Yes. We know children are great at acquiring and spreading viruses. 

How are you staying in touch with your friends and family who are far away? Are you missing any key life events for family members and friends? 

Ly: We made almost weekly teleconference calls (via FaceTime or Zoom) to our friends and families locally and as far away as Los Angeles and San Francisco, Calif., Beaverton, Ore., New York City, Chengdu, China, etc. It has been tough not to see each other in person, but we feel that it is our responsibility to do our fair share of social distancing in order to curb the spread of this debilitating and sometimes deadly disease.

What travel have you had to cancel or adjust? What was your thought process for making these decisions?

Aliota: I canceled two vacations this summer because it is not safe to travel. 

Craft: We are not traveling for work or for fun. Just for critical caregiving roles.  

Ly: We have not made any trips yet or any travel plans for the foreseeable future. We would wait until the COVID-19 case counts have subsided nationwide and when it's safe to do so (once we can get vaccinated for COVID-19 or have a proven and effective treatment available against this deadly disease).

Torremorell: No trips canceled. Actually, we have traveled more this summer than usual. We have taken the opportunity to go up North in pretty isolated cabins given that the kids didn't have summer activities. It has been great and those trips brought some sense of sanity to my family! 

Consuming media

What are some things you have seen the media do that have been harmful to informing the public about the pandemic? 

Aliota: I believe there has been too much emphasis on sanitation. For example, my kids’ school district’s plan for reopening is almost exclusively focused on sanitation. Cleaning spaces is important but it creates a false sense of security. Likewise, there is too much emphasis on 6-foot distancing. It is portrayed as this magical distance that again creates a false sense of security. Distancing is context and activity dependent and there are lots of variables for indoor spaces that can influence what spacing is and isn’t safe. Regarding information to avoid, I recommend listening to Anthony Fauci. 

What are some things you have seen the media do right? What outlets do you recommend getting information from? 

Aliota: has some great content related to COVID-19. Ed Yong at the Atlantic is essential reading along with Helen Branswell at Stat News


Are you eating out on restaurant patios? If so, what precautions do you take?

Aliota: No—eating at a restaurant simply is not worth the risk, and this is a high-risk activity. 

Ly: Only one of us parents would do grocery shopping almost on a weekly basis (while wearing cloth face mask and gloves) and we would occasionally order prepared meals for either pick up or for delivery only. We have not yet dared to dine out at this point in time.

Do you have your groceries delivered, or do you still go to the grocery store? 

Aliota: I do still go to the grocery store, but I try to only make trips every 10-14 days. I use the contactless pickup for essentials in between. For in-person visits, I go during off-peak hours to avoid crowds. I wear a mask, and make sure to wash my hands when I get home and after unpacking groceries. 

Craft: We have our groceries delivered, although we were already doing this before the pandemic.

How are you supporting local businesses right now? 

Aliota: Supporting local businesses is always important to me, so I still try to do this by placing orders for contactless pickup over ordering from Amazon, for example. 

Torremorell: We order some take out and I go to my local drive-through Caribou coffee more often to help them stay in business!

Meet your experts


Matthew Aliota illustration

Matthew Aliota, PhD, an assistant professor in the Department of Veterinary and Biomedical Sciences, possesses 15 years of experience and expertise in arbovirus virology, vector biology, developing animal models of disease to further human patient outcomes, emerging infectious diseases, and host-pathogen interactions. He was previously heavily involved in the research response to the zika virus that continues to spread across the Americas. After receiving his BS and PhD from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, he completed an NIH Postdoctoral Fellowship in Biodefense and Emerging Infectious Disease. He has taught DVM, graduate, and undergraduate courses at the CVM since 2018. Lately, he has been helping the Medical School process samples of COVID-19 in order to accelerate crucial analysis that could lead to COVID-19–fighting drugs.


Megan Craft Illustration

Meggan Craft, PhD, is an associate professor in the Department of Veterinary Population Medicine. As a disease ecologist, her research focuses on understanding infectious disease dynamics in animal and human populations. She studies disease spread through data modeling. Craft is interested in how pathogens are maintained in multi-host ecosystems and how genetics impact pathogen dynamics amongst a population. Craft has worked on disease ecology at the intersection of environmental, human, and animal health for 17 years. Current research projects in the Craft lab focus on modeling the spread of the novel coronavirus among human populations, swine viruses, "large cat" retroviruses (i.e., pumas and lions), and raccoon rabies.


Hinh Ly Illustration

Hinh Ly, MA, PhD, a professor in the Department of Veterinary and Biomedical Sciences, earned his undergraduate and advanced degrees at UCLA and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He then received his first academic appointment at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia. In 2011, Ly moved his laboratory to the University of Minnesota to serve as an associate professor in the College of Veterinary Medicine. He focuses his research on how pathogenic viruses, such as Lassa virus and SARS-CoV-2, hide from the immune system in order to cause complications that often lead to death in infected victims. Ly hopes his studies, which are supported by the National Institutes of Health, can bring about novel vaccines and treatments that allow patients to recover from deadly illnesses caused by particularly complex and evasive viruses. Ly runs a lab with his collaborator in life and in science, his wife, Yuying Liang, MS, PhD, professor in the Department of Veterinary and Biomedical Sciences. The Liang-Ly lab currently has multiple projects underway to improve testing options, identify the virus’ weaknesses, and create the best and safest possible vaccine. 


Tom Molitor illustration

Thomas Molitor, PhD, department chair and professor in the Department of Veterinary Population Medicine (VPM), focuses his research on mechanisms that allow viral diseases to spread and infect, host defense responses, and immunity and addictive drugs. Under Molitor’s leadership, the VPM currently has numerous grants to address COVID-19 and is working to develop improved models for anticipating the disease’s spread, unpacking the virus’ genome, developing a handheld test, and creating improved treatments for the illness. 


Montserrat Torremorell illustration

Montserrat Torremorell, DVM, PhD, professor in the Department of Veterinary Population Medicine, is an animal health expert with an emphasis on infectious swine diseases and strategies to improve the health of swine systems. She has taught DVM students, mentored graduate students, and conducted research at the CVM since 2009. She has studied airborne transmission of coronaviruses in swine herds as well as influenza virus and porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome virus. Now, she is applying her knowledge to helping validate air purification systems for hospitals and households that destroy SARS-CoV-2 in the air before it has a chance to infect anyone.

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