At the Drexel University Dornsife School of Public Health, the pandemic and initial shutdown in March of 2020 coincided with the tail end of their spring term (and when their second-year MPH students finish up). It required some quick cancelling of celebratory events and responding to the concerns and questions from the school and university community while trying to figure out what was going on. In addition to engaging with the university, they also immediately joined with the health department to assist.
Esther Chernak, MD, MPH, FACP, associate professor of environmental and occupational health, director, Center for Public Health Readiness and Communication at Dornsife, and her team assisted in the planning and implementing of Philadelphia’s first COVID-19 drive-thru testing facility at Citizens Bank Park in the first weeks of the pandemic. The site was open for two months and was created to provide testing to potentially more vulnerable individuals over the age of 50. Additional DSPH faculty and students also volunteered at the site.
Says Associate Dean for Public Health Practice and External Affairs Jennifer Kolker, “Our mobilization was both internal and external. The university quickly created a scientific advisory group to advise on the university’s COVID-19 response and drew heavily from faculty and leadership of the School of Public Health. Externally, our Dean and several faculty members sit on Philadelphia’s Board of Health and so engaged immediately in the citywide response. They have also continued to develop strategies to respond and protect the health of residents with the Philadelphia Department of Public Health (PDPH) and Health Commissioner. On a more individual level, we had to reassure our students, parents, faculty and staff and create a sense of community and resiliency during incredibly challenging times.”
Associate Dean Kolker continues: “We immediately saw our role as a school of public health to try and disseminate newly evolving information and highlight the issues of health equity that COVID-19 so clearly demonstrated. We immediately launched a webinar series, Emerging Issues in the Coronavirus Pandemic, with 31 webinars to date, with 4,500 live viewers via Zoom and over 4,000 additional views on YouTube. Topics ranged from racial disparities in COVID-19, population mental health and COVID-19, COVID-19 and cities, first responders, clinical trials and treatments. In keeping with our role in dissemination and education, over 25 of our faculty were regularly quoted in the media, helping to disseminate research, explain and comment on local, state and federal COVID policy, and provide an additional voice to COVID messaging. We had over 365 media clips from local, national and global publications.”
On the programmatic side, the university partnered with the Big Cities Health Coalition (BCHC) to release a “COVID-19 Health Inequities in Cities Dashboard” — a powerful data tool that enables visualizations of COVID-19-related outcomes and inequities over time and across BCHC cities. The dashboard includes information on COVID-19 incidence, mortality, testing, test positivity and hospitalizations in BCHC cities. Additionally, the dashboard allows users to characterize, compare and track inequities at three levels: across individuals within cities, across neighborhoods within cities and across cities. Interactive visualizations allow users to explore data on COVID-19-related outcomes and outcome inequities for BCHC cities, including options for users to select specific variables or cities and tools to assist in interpretations. The project was supported by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the de Beaumont Foundation.
Kolker adds, “The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the multiple ways that structural factors such as racism and economic inequality drive health inequities. Inequities in COVID-19 outcomes (testing, incidence, hospitalizations and mortality) emerged early in the pandemic. A first step in addressing these inequities is to describe and quantify their magnitude in order to create public awareness and identify the factors and policies that may be most effective in eliminating them. Comparing inequities across different cities can be especially valuable in understanding drivers, targeting resources and identifying effective policies.”
But there were enormous challenges, Kolker says, in putting courses online and continuing to provide a high-level academic experience for students. “We discovered that we were nimbler and more flexible than we thought and have learned through those challenges.” She adds that “the other great challenge has been maintaining a sense of community and collaboration as we also strive to make the workplace safe and flexible. Managing varying levels of risk (even within a public health community), personal and family circumstances, desire to be in-person and learn in-person, has been a challenge that we continue to work through with students, faculty, staff and the university at large.”
She points to lessons learned though: “We have learned that we are more resilient and flexible than we realized. In the past, we’d say we needed weeks to put on a webinar or months to put a class online; COVID-19 taught us we can move quickly when we need to. At the same time, we’ve learned that our competencies and what we teach may need to move more quickly to better respond to the public health needs of our students and the field.”