Before the lockdown in March 2020, the CUNY Graduate School of Public Health & Health Policy was mainly focused on getting in front of the communication effort to inform communities — especially vulnerable and underserved communities in New York City such as in Harlem where the school is based — about the virus and community spread. In the weeks approaching the lockdown and during the lockdown itself, the school then expanded its attention to 1) how to seamlessly transition to remote learning; 2) how to continue the fundamental operations of the school and provide cloud-based or remote/virtual means for organizational administration; and 3) work with the city to help provide training to the contact-tracing workforce and to keep the public informed about the virus and measures to protect against infection and misinformation.
With respect to education, their goal was to ensure that all faculty were well equipped to deliver and manage their courses on the learning management system. Many training sessions were scheduled to ensure that faculty and students knew how to navigate cloud systems, the learning management system, web-based conferences and other systems. The IT unit innovated their service by providing a chat-based system to make it easier for students, staff and faculty to access services throughout the transition. The school ensured that faculty, staff and students had appropriate equipment such as laptops, headsets and internet services to be able to work and learn remotely. The school also secured emergency funding for students demonstrating need, expanded mental health and counseling services as students dealt with isolation and financial stresses, and provided a flexible grading option for students who struggled academically.
“We were constantly thinking about learning outcomes, the health of our students, keeping students on track to complete their degrees, and any potential financial loss and harm,” CUNY SPH Dean Ayman El-Mohandes says. “To that end, various school committees, the school leadership and work groups collected data to measure how well we were doing supporting various communities and our organization. Our results showed that we did very well to ensure that operations and people were well supported.”
Researchers and educators convened a task force during the first weeks of March 2020 to discuss potential roles for confronting the pandemic. By considering what the school could produce quickly and consistently with the expertise and resources at hand, the CUNY SPH Covid-19 Tracking Survey (CUNY CoTS) was launched on March 13, 2020. The resulting reports provided vital information that was made available quickly and distributed to news outlets, to public health officials and to policymakers to aid in informing the pandemic response. This 16-week project led to various similar surveys over the past two years, largely from the same team at CUNY SPH. A series of three quarterly surveys (September 2021, November 2021, January 2022) tracked food and housing security across the city and monitored willingness to accept a vaccine prior to authorization and widespread rollout. Then revisiting some of the same issues, they fielded a survey in January 2022 to compare one year of data collection. This included an oversample in Harlem to zoom in on neighborhood-level sentiments and resource needs. The team produced a data report and a recorded presentation to distribute to community partners and local elected officials.
The CUNY SPH Covid-19 Tracking Survey also paved the way for a series of annual global surveys aimed at tracking public attitudes on the government’s pandemic response, vaccine sentiments and acceptance, and personal risk assessment. These global surveys have led to multiple publications and now a third round of data collection in July 2022. The NYC-level data was quickly synthesized into a report to provide access to information on current attitudes and behaviors across the city with local news outlets picking up key data points. These ongoing survey projects demonstrate CUNY SPH’s commitment to collecting timely data as a foremost research institution, but also the school’s commitment to providing information to empower actions and response at the community level.
In June 2020, CUNY SPH partnered with NYC Health + Hospitals and the Mayor’s Office of Housing Recovery Operations to help hire and train resource navigators and supervisors to connect those infected or exposed to COVID-19 with free critical economic, social and physical health resources and programs including food delivery, help accessing health insurance, links to a primary care provider and mental health support, help with domestic violence, connections to social services and housing resources, and a “take care” package with enough personal protective equipment for a household to quarantine. This project continues today. CUNY SPH has a cadre of 80 navigators and supervisors who are connecting New Yorkers living with long COVID to services.
Despite tremendous global efforts to achieve high vaccine coverage and community immunity against COVID-19, widespread vaccine hesitancy has become a major hurdle, Dean El-Mohandes says. “Addressing the barriers to, and facilitators of, vaccine acceptance is crucial in implementing effective and tailored interventions to attain maximum vaccine coverage,” he adds.
Another major obstacle that has emerged during the COVID-19 pandemic is the increasing amount of false content circulating on social media platforms.
“Before a vaccine was approved for public use, rumors of safety scares and conspiracy theories swirled, leading to social media outlets taking active measures to limit misinformation,” says Dean El-Mohandes. “These measures, although important, have not prevented a saturated information system nor blocked harmful misinformation from undermining science-backed sources. These features of the media environment and the way people engage with the news call for a revision of the risk communication guidance during a public health crisis.”
He continues, “As faculty and staff, we were very concerned about the mental health of everyone — but particularly our students. Many of our students come from underrepresented and chronically under-resourced communities. The City University of New York is nationally known to be a powerful driver of social and economic mobility. Education is at the heart of this driving force, and we were collectively concerned about the implications of the isolation and stresses of the lockdown on the ability of our students to succeed in their educational endeavors. As we slowly return to normal, we know that some of our students still suffer from the stress of this pandemic. We intend to keep an eye on the well-being of our students.
Dean El-Mohandes points to lessons learned: “The importance of clear, concise public health communications from trusted sources has never been more apparent. It is critical that health communicators worldwide are more proactive in tackling risk communication challenges related to COVID-19 and other public health emergencies. Social service, health care, public health and financial systems must work in concert on the federal, state, local and institutional levels, sharing data and aligning their messaging to avoid disseminating conflicting information. Most importantly, marginalized communities and those most impacted by public health crises must be included in the conversation.”