Alumni Life: Dean Hosgood ’98
Dean Hosgood ’98 is an epidemiologist who studies the risk factors that make some populations more susceptible to diseases than other populations. As public health officials, epidemiologists seek to help the most people by identifying and outlining prevention strategies. “A medical doctor will typically focus on the health of one patient at a time,” Hosgood explains, “whereas an epidemiologist is trained to focus on the health of whole populations.”
Before the pandemic, Hosgood was predominantly focusing on how environmental exposures interact with genetics to lead to the development of various cancers. “ I was mostly studying populations with exceedingly high environmental exposures, typically in Asia, as well as in South America,” he says. “We would identify populations with unique exposures to enroll in our studies. Since you can’t purposely expose people to something you think is harmful, we would seek out these so-called natural experiments. For example, we’re studying workers on drilling platforms in the Norwegian Sea, where we know they have high occupational exposures during their time on the job site.”
Although epidemiologists are constantly studying diseases around the world, the extent of COVID-19 is what makes the novel virus so significant. “The scope of it is much newer to the world,” Hosgood says. “Think about air travel and how much people are crossing the globe; it was only a matter of time before an infectious agent was going to spread rapidly.” When the coronavirus hit, much of Hosgood’s global research was scaled back as he began to shift his focus more locally, specifically to the Bronx, where his work is based. He used his epidemiologic research methodologies to identify which populations might be at higher risk for developing serious symptoms from COVID-19 and requiring hospitalization. “We have been able to use that to try to understand a little bit more about why certain races and ethnicities are affected disproportionately from COVID,” he says.
Public health thinks about the greater good, but ultimately the outcome is often the result of individuals’ actions. In many cases, guidance from public health officials is more of a recommendation than a mandate. “It’s typically up to the individual to make that decision,” Hosgood says. “It is very challenging because each community, even more granular than the state or county levels, is having a different experience from COVID. They're having different rates of infections, different rates of hospitalizations, and thus different comfort levels with, and understanding of, the disease at the community level. This is especially important as the weather gets warmer and people are out more, it’s going to be harder and harder for people to participate in social distancing, and wearing masks; so I think some communities will abide better with the public health recommendations, while others will be disproportionately affected.”
The incoming vice president of Mercersburg’s Board of Regents, Hosgood has been critical in interpreting information for Mercersburg. He regularly communicates with individual board members, Head of School Katie Titus, and Storm Watch (Mercersburg’s task force that seeks protective and proactive measures for the Mercersburg community in relation to the pandemic). With the influx of data found in the media and news cycle, Hosgood has been helping the Mercersburg community understand the nuances of infection rates, spread, and prevention strategies. “My role has been to help people understand the meaning of a lot of that clinical, laboratory, and population-level data. If you look across the spectrum right now you see conflicting reports; for example with testing, some tests are a lot more reliable than others.”
As Mercersburg thinks about a return to campus, Hosgood also gives his thoughts on how social distancing will take place, what prevention will look like, and what the likelihood is of cases actually being on campus: “I use my statistical and epidemiological skills to help drill down and provide one more layer of expertise to interpret and understand so they can make the best decision possible for the campus.”