Coronavirus Crisis: Santa Clara County's Dr. Cody predicts 'very, very long' time until life returns to normal

SANTA CLARA COUNTY, Calif. (KGO) -- Santa Clara County Public Health Director Dr. Sara Cody was the first to sound the alarm about the outbreak of novel coronavirus. She's seen by some as the Dr. Fauci of the Bay Area.

Scroll to the bottom of this post to watch the full interview and see the entire Q&A with Dr. Sara Cody



Now, as the Bay Area now enters it's fourth week sheltering in place, Dr. Cody has a grim prediction: That a return to normal life might be farther away than any of us hoped or expected.

"We're going to be at this for a very, very long time," she told ABC7 News anchor Liz Kreutz in a one-on-one interview Monday. "I just have to keep reminding myself that this is a marathon and we have to keep ourselves nourished somehow, and we have to keep our energy good."

Dr. Cody was part of the team of public health officials to enact the Bay Area's shelter-in-place order; the first region in the country to do so.

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"Taking action early gives us an advantage, gave us an advantage in slowing things down," she said. "It has, of course, caused enormous social and economic disruption. But had we taken action later, we would still be sheltering in place, we would still be experiencing incredible economic and social disruption and we'd be having an incredible strain on our healthcare system as well."

When asked why officials haven't released which areas are hardest hit, she says the virus is widespread in the county. It's everywhere.

Dr. Cody believes taking early action has made a difference.

"While we're not out of the woods, I am cautiously optimistic that we've put our hospitals and healthcare partners in a better position to manage the infections that we expect will be continuing to be coming," she said. "What I will say, is taking action early gives us an advantage, gave us an advantage, in slowing things down."

Still, Dr. Cody says a surge in cases is coming, and that since a vaccine is still a long ways off, at some point everyone is likely to be infected with COVID-19.

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"Yes, probably at some point," Dr. Cody replied when asked if she believes everyone will be infected. "What our shelter-in-place order does, though, is slow things down, so we spread the cases out over a long period of time, and so that we spread the number of people who are severely ill and require hospitalization over a long period of time as well."

Dr. Cody declined to give a timeline for when she anticipates life returning to normal, saying this is the "new normal" for the foreseeable future. She stopped short of saying school won't return in the Fall.

"Mostly, what I'm trying to do in my own home is try to get my kids used to online learning, they're not a big fan of it, but that's the reality at the moment," Dr. Cody said when asked what she tells her own children about the possibility going back to school in the Fall. "I just want to go back to our new normal, and that is that everything is uncertain."

WATCH: Full interview with Dr. Sara Cody
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Santa Clara County, the area hardest hit by the coronavirus pandemic in the region, was the first to issue a shelter-in-place order. Now their leading expert is offering her thoughts on the battle against COVID-19. Here's what she had to say.



Q&A with Dr. Cody



Dr. Cody, I want to start big picture. We're now entering our fourth week sheltering in place here in the Bay Area. Why is a surge still expected to come if we've been sheltering in place for this long now?
"We have to remember that everyone in our community is likely susceptible. In other words, if exposed to the virus would become infected and so when you have conditions like this, we expect a surge. What our shelter in place order does, though, is slow things down, so we spread the cases out over a long period of time, and we spread the number of people who are severely ill and require hospitalization out over a longer period of time as well."

Does that mean that you expect almost everybody at some point is going to get infected?
Well, yes, probably at some point. Of course, what we're waiting for, but it's quite a long ways off, is a vaccine. And so absent a vaccine and absent a treatment, what we're using are called NPIs, or "non-pharmaceutical interventions," and our best tool right now is the shelter in place order.

You've been given some well-deserved praise for being one of the first to ring the alarm about this pandemic. The Bay Area was thus one of the first in the country to enact a shelter in place order at your urging. Do you think this is why we aren't seeing as many cases as in other hot spots? Is it a sign we're beginning to flatten the curve?
Well, while we're not out of the woods, I am cautiously optimistic that we've put our hospitals and healthcare partners in a better position to manage the infections that we expect will be continuing to be coming. What I will say, is that taking action early gives us an advantage, gave us an advantage, in slowing things down. It has, of course, caused enormous social and economic disruption. But had we taken the actions later, we would still be sheltering in place, we would still be experiencing incredible social and economic disruption, and we would be having incredible strain on our healthcare system as well.

You got the call on January 31st about the first case of coronavirus in the Bay Area, in your county, Santa Clara County. At that point did you expect we would be where we are today with more than 1,200 cases in your county? Did you expect more? Less?
What I can tell you is that in January, late January and early February, the experience we were having was like being in a dark theater. And so we just had one little sign. One traveler, and then two travelers return with this infection. But we didn't have the tools in place to allow us to understand whether there was spread in the community and, if so, what to degree. The pattern of this epidemic is becoming more clear every day but it is still not completely clear and that's because we still don't widespread testing.

On that front, you were raising the alarm at the beginning of this year. Do you think the federal government waited too long to respond?
Well, I prefer to focus on what we're able to do here in our county, in the county of Santa Clara, in collaboration with our partners and our colleagues across the Bay Area. And I think that we've been able to make a difference working together. I won't lie there have been incredible challenges and many of those have to do with a different level of preparedness by some of our partners.

On a personal note, you and your family live in this community as well and are also just as impacted as everybody else. Personally, what keeps you up at night right now?
Well, there's a lot that keeps me up at night. But I think that for me and for everyone living here I just have to keep reminding myself that this is a marathon, and we have to keep ourselves nourished somehow, and we have to keep our energy good, because we're going to be at this for a very, very long time.

When you say that, a very, very long time, what is your timeline? When do you think we might start to get back to some kind of normal?
The honest truth is I don't know. But looking at patterns and other places in the world the pattern seems to be that when the community lets up on social distancing, for example, cases tend to re-surge. And that's not surprising, right? Because we still don't have widespread immunity in the population, and so we have to think of all the different ways in which we can limit spread and keep the rate of growth as slow as possible.

Just to go into that a little bit more. I think people are going to watch this and think you're saying almost everybody at some point is going to get infected, we're going to be in this for a very, very long time. Are we talking a year? When are people going to feel safe to be able to mingle and mix with others again?
Well, I think we're still adjusting to our new normal. Life right now is very, very different than the end of 2019. And part of our new normal and new life is living with a lot of uncertainty. We just don't have certainty about what things are going to look like you, know, a month down the line, or three months down the line, or six months down the line. There's uncertainty, we don't know.

Why is Santa Clara County, at this point, not releasing where the cases are within the county so people can try to avoid those certain areas?
So, we want to be offering to the public and everyone as much information as we have. We also want to make sure we are offering information that is useful. So, we will have information out very soon on geography. But I want to say, and this is really important, what we know now from all the signals what we see, is that coronavirus is very widespread in the county of Santa Clara. It's everywhere. And so, even if you live, say you live in a city and you see, oh there's not many cases in my city. That doesn't mean anything in terms of the protective actions you need to be taking. Everyone still needs to be very careful to stay in their home, in their household, as much as possible, and to only go out to do essential things like get groceries or medical care. Or if you have to venture our because you're doing some essential work. And everybody else really, really needs to be staying at home.

If your own kids said, "Mom, when do I get to go back to school?" Would you reassure them that maybe come Fall they'll be able to go back to school again?
Mostly what I'm trying to do in my own home is try to get my kids used to online learning. They're not a big fan of it but that's the reality at the moment so that's where we're focused.

So you're saying there's a chance maybe Fall -- we don't go back to school?
I just sort of want to go back to our new normal, is that everything is uncertain.

We're almost at the end of our interview. I know there's a couple things that you want to talk about today: The unhoused population as well as discrimination in our communities. I want to give you time to talk about those important issues.
Thank you. So, COVID-19, as is with any infectious disease, tends to find populations that are more vulnerable. And any time you have an infection that's really easily spread from person to person, of course it will spread more easily in conditions where there is more crowding. And those are the, we're particularly concerned about areas in our county, where people are living in crowded homes. And if you think about it, if you have people living together in a crowded home, it's extraordinarily difficult to practice consistent social distancing. And if someone in your home becomes ill, it's really hard to self-isolate away from others in a home that's crowded. So, one of our bodies of work right now is to try to understand as best we can is how we can help. And how we can make sure COVID-19 does not spread quickly in communities like that.

Very important issues. Thank you so much for all the work you're doing. Thank you and appreciate your time.
Thank you so much.

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