Founding Dean and Professor Paul Halverson of the Indiana University Richard M. Fairbanks School of Public Health – Indianapolis first heard from colleagues about the severity of the pandemic. “I realized that after talking with colleagues at ASTHO and at CDC that COVID-19 was spreading faster and was making people much sicker than what we originally thought to be the case,” Halverson shares.
“About a week later, I was contacted by the president of our largest health system in the state and was asked to help support them with technical advice and disease modeling and forecasting. Having been at CDC during 9-11 and anthrax, I began to have that familiar but uncomfortable feeling that we had yet to see the worst of these symptoms. Also, having been at CDC prior to H1N1, I know we had developed deliberate plans for state and local response. It was heartbreaking to know that so much of that work had been long forgotten and not maintained for years,” he says. “The budgets for state and local preparedness had been substantially reduced and preparedness planning, training and the careful communication and public awareness campaigns were but a distant memory. I had that sinking feeling that this would again be a crisis that we would not be prepared to address.”
“In my new role as dean, I recognized that our focus must change to doing all that we could to support our state and local public health departments. We had good people in these roles and this would be a time when our commitment to public health practice would be tested. Our school was created for times like this and our value as a school would be demonstrated by how we responded,” Halverson says. “The first thing we did was to mobilize our school leadership team and describe what our priorities would be over the next several weeks. We needed to help support our faculty, staff and students but we also would do whatever it took to help support our partners.”
“We mobilized our faculty to support the epidemiological modeling and forecasting for our hospital partners, the state health department and our local public health department in Marion County,” Halverson recalls. “We developed guidance, investigated testing and developed mitigation strategies.”
He continues, “For the state health department, we helped with developing dashboards, forecasting tools and assisted in communication with the local health departments. Ultimately, we worked with the governor’s office and the state health officer to lead a statewide random testing strategy and worked with the local health department and religious leaders in minority churches to arrange for targeted testing. In addition, we agreed to take on the task of hiring, training and conducting contact tracing for our local health department. Ultimately, we would hire over 200 people and would be available for technical consultation 24×7 to write guidance, emergency regulations and conduct trainings, host forums and help to keep the wheels moving for our public health system.”
The Fairbanks School conducted integral, early research, he says. “Our school led the first and most comprehensive statewide prevalence study in the United States. We conducted a scientific study to measure the spread of COVID-19 throughout the state. The closely monitored study included random sample testing for SARS-CoV-2 — the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19 — viral infections and antibodies in Hoosiers. This study led to state and national policy changes and established the 40% asymptomatic rate for positive cases and identified the loss of taste and smell as symptoms of COVID-19,” Halverson says.
Halverson says two lessons stand out from the Fairbanks School’s experience during the pandemic so far. First, “There is no substitute for a strong well-trained public health staff at the state and local levels with robust infrastructure especially in epidemiology and informatics.” And, second: “We must make sure that our students are well versed in emergency preparedness and our faculty need to know how they can be most helpful during a public health crisis.”