At the Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center School of Public Health, faculty and staff knew COVID-19 had become a dire threat when the US reported its first confirmed case on January 30, 2020. The intense period of Mardi Gras parades was just beginning, and the last two weeks of February 2020 would be the peak, ending on Mardi Gras. Dean Dean Smith says, “We were very concerned that this would be a potentially catastrophic event, which has been confirmed to have been associated with as many as 50,000 cases. We were thinking about how we convince people not to act in the usual crazy manner and realized that the city was not prepared to change.”
As a school and campus, they responded by meeting to review their continuity of operations plans. Being in a hurricane-prone area, they have up-to-date plans and were able to implement remote work and learning, practice and research, and to subsequently launch a tracking and tracing program using their Epidemiology Data Center platform.
Dean Smith says, “We explored many phone-based applications and did not find any that appeared to be worthwhile. We also launched communications from the School epidemiologists. That included key messages like, ‘There is unfortunately a lot of poor messaging out there now, so we need to be careful consumers of the daily deluge of information,’ and ‘threats from infectious diseases will never go away and this is why many of us are in public health and epidemiology.’”
There were challenges though. According to Dean Smith, “Misinformation provided innocently as well as deliberately [was a challenge]. A good story or lie spreads just as quickly as the truth. [A second challenge was] individual and organizational resistance to constraints on freedoms. We don’t care about each other as much as we might say that we do.”
And there were lessons to learn. “The pandemic highlighted how social and economic vulnerability impact health. We need to work on social and economic measures to address a multitude of public health issues,” Dean Smith adds. “Second, the COVID-19 pandemic has made the public more aware of public health and the role its professionals play in addressing the pandemic. Schools and programs in public health have a new opportunity to recruit, train and sustain the public health workforce.”