In late February 2020, it became clear that COVID-19 was going to have a significant impact on the campus community and beyond. The news of European countries enforcing lockdowns was looming large as the U.S. braced for the growing threat. Says Lee Pearson, associate dean of operations and accreditation at the University of South Carolina Arnold School of Public Health, “My personal moment of realization came when I e-mailed our then director of student health services, Dr. Debbie Beck, prior to spring break and offered my assistance if needed. She and I had worked together on our campus pandemic plan back in 2009 during the swine flu outbreak, and I thought it would be helpful to reconnect given the growing concerns over COVID. She had a simple response: ‘Send me your cell phone number.’ That one e-mail began an intensive partnership of daily interactions that continued for more than a year as we worked with an array of campus and community partners to navigate the challenges of the pandemic.”
UofSC was quickly mobilized to confront the threat of COVID-19. The president at the time, Bob Caslen, was a former army general who developed an immediate “battle plan” to focus the resources of the campus and begin to manage the impact of the virus. Like other colleges and universities, UofSC shifted suddenly to a virtual learning environment, but the President’s focus was on the future — particularly the fall semester and the question of how to safely resume in-person learning.
Thus, UofSC’s campus was mobilized under the banner of the Future Planning Group with numerous teams addressing key aspects of campus operations. Team #1 was public health, including 24 individuals from across the university’s health sciences and health services as well as vital community partners from the state health department and the regional health system. While each team in the future planning group worked collaboratively to implement campus mitigation protocols and to plan effectively for returning to campus in the fall, it was the public health team that was asked to inform decision-making every step of the way.
But the most important action within the Arnold School was to structure the public health team to include an effective mix of scientists and practitioners who were able to translate the evolving information on COVID-19 into workable mitigation strategies. The most effective campus initiatives included establishing a strong partnership with the City of Columbia — essential for an urban campus — and fostering the committed engagement of student leaders.
There were challenges, says Associate Dean Pearson, in staying ahead of the information and effectively communicating their actions. “When you are surrounded by a campus of researchers and scholars, they are always bringing new information to light. It was essential to keep pace with that and to communicate frequently with our audiences of faculty, staff, students, parents and community partners. Over-communicating was the intent, when possible, but it was often quite challenging to keep up that effort amid the daily (and hourly) tasks at hand.”
Pearson points to lessons learned: “Focused leadership is absolutely vital in a crisis. Having a solid, decisive voice at the helm gave clarity to our purpose and efficiency to our charge. The second lesson is that communication is essential. Both internal and external communication efforts were vital in setting and managing expectations, allaying fears and ensuring collaborative problem-solving. Consistent communication was also a key ingredient in our successful return to campus in the fall of 2020.
Pearson continues, “To improve pandemic response in the future, there are several necessities: 1) Adequate funding is needed for the public health system at the local, state and national levels; 2) A robust professional workforce is needed to sustain public health into the future, and there is essential training needed to enhance overall capacity in public health preparedness; 3) And public health systems must be enabled to operate free of undue political influence in order to implement sound decisions and right actions informed by the science and available data.”
Pearson adds, “Public health is vital, but it is often least visible when it is working well. We need to find ways to make public health more visible outside of a crisis. Our field will thrive best when people know its value in their daily lives. We must champion our value!”