UCSC professor Marm Kilpatrick.
UCSC professor Marm Kilpatrick is an infectious disease expert who has become one of the nation’s most outspoken scientists about COVID-19.
(Courtesy Marm Kilpatrick)
Recovery & Reopening

21 for ’21: UCSC’s Marm Kilpatrick fights spread of pandemic misinformation

The UC Santa Cruz professor and infectious disease expert is searching for a clearer understanding of COVID-19 — in his lab, and on Twitter.

As COVID-19 began spreading across the U.S. early this year, infectious disease expert Marm Kilpatrick had a realization.

The only epidemiologist at UC Santa Cruz, he’d been painstakingly digesting a firehose of research emerging on the virus. After a colleague pointed out that expertise was suddenly in high demand, he decided to do what he could to help.

So he emailed local health officials to ask if they needed a hand sorting through the science (many took him up).

He also started tweeting — and hasn’t stopped, becoming a go-to voice to help Americans better understand the pandemic. This month alone, he’s been quoted in publications such as Vox, Scientific American and Wired.

“There were just too many papers coming out too fast for all the scientists to carefully describe what each one did or didn’t say,” Kilpatrick said. “I just recognized that there was the ability to try to get out good science, and to try to squash bad science.”

Lookout's 21 for '21

EDITOR’S NOTE: We’re profiling 21 individuals who made a difference in pandemic-and-wildfire-ravaged Santa Cruz County in 2020 — and how they’re looking toward recovery in 2021. Have suggestions about others we should pick? Email us at news@lookoutlocal.com

For example, when “virus traces” found after 17 days on the Princess cruise ship in March prompted a flurry of frantic news coverage, Kilpatrick was quick to point out those RNA traces were like “limbs” of the virus — not infectious — and that surface transmission, while possible, is rare.

He’s also done research that seeks to better understand the virus’s infection-mortality rate in the U.S, the impacts of delays in contact tracing, and how long a carrier might be contagious before showing symptoms.

In apparent disregard for the usual limitations imposed by sleep needs, he’s also advising state and local health officials about virus prevention and serving as the scientific adviser to Santa Cruz County’s Economic Recovery Council, which is coordinating the business community’s plan to emerge from COVID-19.

Kilpatrick, 48, was raised near Watsonville, where he attended Mount Madonna School. He studied mechanical engineering at UCLA before graduate work at MIT and the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he earned a doctorate in zoology.

Marm Kilpatrick
(Marm Kilpatrick / Contributed)

He returned to Santa Cruz County in 2008, joining the UCSC faculty with a stack of citations already under his belt — many relating to the spread of West Nile virus and other pathogens.

Looking at the year ahead, Kilpatrick said he’s optimistic about the potential for vaccines to slowly usher in a return to near normalcy within nine to 12 months, barring major surprises.

“We might still do a few things like masks in big crowded settings . . . sporting events, concerts or things like that,” he said. “But I think in terms of businesses opening, and those kinds of things — I think we’ll probably be back to 95 or 99%.”

Vaccines, however, also raise new public-health challenges. Who gets them first? How quickly can we call it a success and let our guard down?

And what to do about fear of side effects, real or imagined?

“If [vaccine data] all holds up with what we’ve seen initially, then I think there’s a very easy, truly strong case to make,” Kilpatrick said.

Still, he expects pockets of some communities — Santa Cruz County not excluded — might be tougher to convince: “That’s going to be a huge challenge going forward, trying to get people to recognize that both the individual and societal benefit of people getting vaccinated is going to be so much larger than the possible costs.”

In the meantime, Kilpatrick will keep spreading the word. His Twitter feed has 6,752 followers — and counting.

Santa Cruz Salutes: Shoutout someone doing good things for the community

The Santa Cruz community comes together in hard times, which was especially evident in 2020. Do you know of someone who volunteered, donated, or helped the community in some way this year? To give someone a Santa Cruz Salute, fill out the form below with a photo of them and a short description to describe how they are trying to make the community better