Colorado School of Public Health

Aurora, CO

When the first few COVID-19 cases were reported in Colorado, the Colorado School of Public Health directed those who could work from home to leave campus. Says Dr. Lee Newman, distinguished university professor and interim chair for the department of environmental and occupational health, “I received a call from a local TV reporter on March 16th who wanted to interview me to help explain to the public the concept of ‘exponential growth.’ Honestly, I wasn’t sure if I was being too alarmist or not. We knew so little. The modeling was in its infancy. But I told him to bring his camera crew to my house and to pick up a large desk calendar and a few big bags of M&Ms. In my living room, they recorded as I placed the first M&Ms on the calendar to represent the first SARS-CoV-2 cases in the state. Two cases, then eight, then a few dozen. … I then started pouring large bags full onto the calendar, spilling over the days. Could this really be happening? It hit me — and my audience — what this really meant and that for starters they needed social distancing and to follow public health guidance. P.S., [the reporter] and his cameraman were the last two people other than immediate family members in my ‘bubble’ to enter our house for the next 18 months.” 

At first, the center was directly involved in messaging about what the virus was and how to protect oneself. Once the vaccine was available, the work shifted to conducting interviews, focus groups and surveys to better understand how to reduce vaccine hesitancy and increase vaccine uptake, especially among residents of rural communities. They then delivered interventions based on needs assessments such as a health messaging chatbot, care kits and trainings for health care workers and community leaders in motivational interviewing methods to increase vaccine uptake. 

Says Clinical Professor May Chu, “I was fortunate to have been able to pull together a consortium of academic high-containment virology labs (to handle the infectious virus experiments), PPE regulatory testing labs (to test the integrity of the PPE in accordance to the regulations), the materials engineer experts (to test the protective effects of the PPE), the PPE standards experts (to ensure compliance to PPE was followed), statisticians, epidemiologists and innovators (a new way to decontaminate PPE that is safe and cheap). This was the DeMaND consortium, we were by then, four virus labs, two materials labs, two registered testing labs, a coalition of over 52 persons, over six countries and two continents. I was also, through my previous work contacts, engaged with a philanthropy organization looking for ways to help and received generous funding. So together, we were able to demonstrate that two cheap and easy methods worked well to inactivate any live SARS-CoV-2 virus on the surface of the masks and N95 respirators: using dry heat for short periods of time and another method, even more intriguing with potential for other applications, use of methylene blue (MB). Our DeMaND work was rewarded with good results coming from so many parties. Further, the WHO picked this up and we explored and developed MB on its application to inactivate Ebola, Lassa, Rift Valley fever, norovirus and other pathogens of public health threat. This work continues to be a successful application of MB to monkeypox.” 

According to Dean and Professor Jon Samet, “The pandemic itself posed the most significant challenge, following its own course as evermore transmissible variants caused successive waves of infection. Colorado, like other states, faced pandemic politics, but at the local level. Colorado’s Governor Polis sought evidence-based guidance in shaping strategies for pandemic control — with the goal of avoiding exceedance of hospital capacity. As a school, our internal challenges were undoubtedly those faced by our colleagues — maintaining operations and high-quality education and a sense of community.” 

Professor Jenn Leiferman points to lessons learned: “We need to increase resources and enhance the infrastructure of our local public health agencies to better prepare for future public health crisis.” 

Dean Samet concludes, “The imprint of the pandemic on the Colorado School of Public Health will be lasting and the school’s practice mission has been redefined. We intend to be a strategic partner as public health is rebuilt in Colorado and the Rocky Mountain Region.” 

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