For Senior Associate Dean for Academic Affairs Bob Weiler at George Mason University College of Public Health, the moment of realization that COVID-19 had become a dire threat was January 31, 2020, when the U.S. declared COVID-19 a public health emergency, followed by March 12, 2020, when Virginia declared a state of emergency. “Because of the rapidity of transmission across the U.S. and around the globe, I had this dreadful feeling that COVID was not going to go away anytime soon. At the time, I had so many thoughts running through my head. My elderly father and aging in-laws. How will the country respond? Do we have the public health and health system to launch an effective response — which we later learned that we didn’t. What was Mason going to do? What did Mason need to do to protect the health and well-being of our students, staff and faculty? My thoughts quickly turned to what we needed to do to maintain the instructional continuity for our degree programs to ensure academic progression and success.”
As it happens, the Emergency Management Executive Committee at Mason responded quickly by forming the Mason Continuity Coordination Team and some 22 working groups charged with developing various plans, policies and programs, including the COVID Safety Plan. These efforts were directed under the leadership of the associate vice-president for safety, emergency, and enterprise risk management who served and currently services as the university’s COVID coordinator.
Throughout the response process, various members of the college served on a variety of committees and made substantial contributions to the implementation of the COVID Safety Plan. For example, Associate Dean Weiler served as a member of the Instructional Continuity Working Group, which was charged with essentially addressing all matters pertaining to academics and educational instruction.
Faculty and staff engaged in a number of initiatives to combat COVID. Dr. Amira led a team to create and launch the nation’s first online COVID-19 symptom and exposure tracker — Mason COVID Health Check. They created a vaccination clinic, which delivered thousands of vaccines to the students, staff and faculty of the university as well as members of the Northern Virginia community. And for Weiler, “On a personal level, my most important efforts were (1) creating a distinct undergraduate COVID-19 response internship and graduate COVID-19 practicum that provide experiential learning opportunities for students interested in working in the Mason COVID-19 vaccination clinic; (2) working on the Instructional Continuity Working Group; and (3) volunteering in the vaccination clinic.
But there were challenges, says Weiler. “From my perspective, I think the biggest challenges had to do with communication and with ensuring that we were doing all that we could to ensure the delivery of our teaching and research mission while protecting the health and well-being of the students, faculty and staff and their families. We asked a lot of our faculty and staff and they delivered at every turn. Yet I was always concerned about their overall well-being. It was a stressful time. Also, keeping everyone informed in a timely manner was often a challenge given the complexity of the density of the information that was being conveyed.”
He cites lessons learned: “(1) Do not take for granted the public’s level of health and science literacy and (2) you can’t divorce politics from public health (a lesson that was reinforced). And to improve pandemic response: (1) Expand the public health infrastructure at the national, state and local level; (2) improve the public’s health and science literacy; (3) improve how public health professionals communicate with the public from diverse backgrounds living in communities across the US — urban, suburban and rural; and (4) improve the public’s perceptions of public health.”