Olympic Medalist, Stanford Alum Dr. Tara Kirk Sell Discusses COVID-19 Response

2004 Olympic medalist and Stanford alum Tara Kirk Sell is among the swimmers who are studying the COVID-19 pandemic from the inside. As reported in an interview with the Kitsap Sun Thursday, she is now a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security and an assistant professor in the Department of Environmental Health and Engineering at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

Kirk Sell, a Bremerton, WA who retired from swimming in 2009, “conducts, manages, and leads research projects to develop a greater understanding of potentially large-scale health events,” according to the Sun.

“COVID-19 is interesting from a research perspective because it shows us how we were both wrong and right about the emergence of a global pandemic,” Kirk Sell, 37, said. “In fact, I co-led a coronavirus-based exercise in October that went through many of the issues we are dealing with today. In many ways, our research led us to make a lot of correct assumptions, but in other ways I’ve been surprised.”

“For instance, the difficulty getting accurate information about case numbers and severity of the disease to make decisions off of it has been significant,” added. Additionally, after working to try to improve pandemic preparedness for the past 10 years, the response has shown a number of critical gaps that have been disappointing.”

Tara Kirk Sell. Courtesy: Johns Hopkins

Asked what one piece of advice she would give in the current situation, Kirk Sell said people should scale their personal response.

“I think that the best advice for COVID-19 is to right-size your own personal response. I think that there are many people who don’t take COVID-19 seriously enough and others who could step back from their panic,” she said. “What is that right-sized response? I think it means considering COVID-19 a big problem that you need to make changes in your life for, but that those changes need to be things you can keep up for a while or you will exhaust yourself. This means hand washing, covering your coughs and staying in when you are sick.”

“At a higher level, it means tele-working for those who can, no mass gatherings for a while, altering business and school practices to increase social distancing. And finally, when we’ve moved past this crisis stage (the virus will be with us for a while, but we’ll need to think of sustainable ways to move forward) people need to insist that the government improve public health and healthcare capacities so we are better prepared for the next time a bad outbreak emerges.”

She noted that tele-working is an example of a practice that could stick once the pandemic passes – but that’s a ways away.

“I think that in some ways, there are aspects of our lives that will never go back to the way they were in 2019. For instance, I think that tele-work will be more widely embraced (something I’m sure Bremerton-Seattle commuters would appreciate). I think that people are going to have to learn to adapt until most people have gotten sick or there is a vaccine. But I don’t want that to sound hopeless.”

Kirk Sell, who was against the idea of moving the 2016 Olympics due to the Zika outbreak, also weighed in on moving the 2020 Games.

“While I rejected the idea that the 2016 Olympic Games should be postponed for Zika, I think delaying the 2020 Olympics was the right call,” she said. “From a public health perspective, we face a disease that threatens to overwhelm healthcare systems across the world and for which large gatherings are particularly concerning. From an athlete perspective, training has been completely disrupted with the implementation of social distancing measures and I don’t see how they could hold selection events ahead of time either.”

Wrapping things up on a more positive note, Kirk Sell said the experience “helps us understand what we value most.”

“One day, when we have come through this, we will look back on it as a critical moment when we understood that some sacrifice was needed by many to protect the vulnerable — and the knowledge that we can do that is pretty empowering,” Kirk Sell said.

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Great article! You go Tara!


About a month ago, she spoke in Congress to one of the committees about the Pandemic! Way to go Tara!


Class act. Tara is awesome!

About Torrey Hart

Torrey Hart

Torrey is from Oakland, CA, and majored in media studies and American studies at Claremont McKenna College, where she swam distance freestyle for the Claremont-Mudd-Scripps team. Outside of SwimSwam, she has bylines at Sports Illustrated, Yahoo Sports, SB Nation, and The Student Life newspaper.

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