Georgia State University School of Public Health Dean and Professor Rodney Lyn became ill with COVID-19 two days before the nationwide shutdown in March 2020. He says, “The moment of realization for us occurred during this week, though even at that time we could not have imagined that almost 6.5 million people worldwide and over 1 million people in the U.S. (and counting) would die from COVID-19. Our first response was in concert with our university, to protect faculty, staff and students. The university closed. The scale of impact was hard to come to grips with. It was jarring.”
After moving class to 100% remote for the rest of the 2019-2020 academic year, Georgia State began to invest energy in supporting the university community and the state in responding to the pandemic. According to Dean Lyn, “We worked closely with the Georgia Department of Public Health, and they desperately needed individuals to serve as contact tracers. We put a call out to our students and sent 50 of them over to the state to be hired as contact tracers and case investigators. Our Prevention Research Center leveraged its community connections to share information about COVID precautions and, after vaccines became available, launched a project to increase vaccination uptake. To reach an even wider audience, SPH faculty launched the COVID-19 Forecasting Center, with daily forecasts for states and countries around the globe.”
He continues, “I was asked to co-lead the campus response, together with the university medical director and chief legal counsel/chief of staff. It was an intense period. Time was of the essence and there was no support outside of the university — we were on our own, much like the health departments, hospitals, etc. Everyone needed to be rescued, but help was slow to come. We had to make our way alone using our internal/institutional resources in those early days.”
They implemented several initiatives:
- COVID-19 testing for athletes and those in on-campus housing that leveraged faculty expertise and on-campus labs.
- A self-reporting system for faculty, staff and students to report COVID-19 symptoms and cases to a case-investigation unit.
- Development of a data system to daily track and report on-campus COVID-19 tests and cases identified through testing and from self-reporting.
- Since the university could not mandate testing, SPH faculty developed a sampling method based on COVID-19 testing among students in campus housing to determine the positivity rate and potential spread. They utilized external vendors to expand testing to all faculty, staff and students and provided testing sites across campus.
- Vaccination clinics and sites for the campus community.
Dean Lyn adds, “Our biostatistics and epidemiology faculty contributed their time and expertise to develop a sampling plan for COVID-19 testing in the campus residence halls. In reality, they developed a plan for campus-wide testing, but this was scaled back to focus solely on residence hall students. This plan served as the foundation for the university’s testing and data monitoring among on-campus students.”
“Systems are inadequate. … public health systems, health care systems and government systems,” Dean Lyn says. “There was a need to mobilize quickly, and this was not possible because the systems did not allow for it. Public health and health care needed to work together better, but there was no history or plan to do this well. The government needed to mobilize the private sector, but this was slow to occur because systems and plans were not in place. Data systems and interoperability are critical. We need more professionals with deep expertise in these areas. We need to teach our students to recognize urgent moments. I saw too much slow-walking, as if there was not a crisis with life and death implications. How do we teach this?”