When COVID first emerged as a dire threat at the Michigan State University MPH Program, the school aimed to ensure it was ready to respond. Because their primary mission is under the umbrella of education and training, they recognized early on that they had potential volunteers in students and faculty. The path was clear, and they knew they could impact the people providing medical care and the general public to help increase vaccine uptake.
In the early stages of COVID, activities to enhance the public’s response began with seeking and training volunteers for contact tracing. As the pandemic went on, courses were developed for medical students to understand the whole issue of pandemics. For the public, a free course was launched to inform the public about COVID-19 and pandemics with the goal of helping one another be safe. To date, nearly 300 users have enrolled in the course.
According to the Director of the Master of Public Health Program Wayne McCullough, the most significant challenges were understanding the virus, effectively communicating about it and how it was transmitted, and ensuring the community stayed safe. “The initial take was to wash and sanitize everything that came into your house because so much early research suggested that the virus could live on contact surfaces. Tension was high. People were locked down, locked up and locked away. Because of the school’s wraparound services model for the online program, they were well-prepared to deal with most of the issues and concerns students had. They focused on ensuring that they stepped back and listened more closely to students’ issues and challenges. From a workplace perspective, many of our students were now working remotely or on the frontlines of the pandemic response. The Program needed to be sensitive to how they protected themselves and their families. And as COVID continued, they had to step back and understand the impact of individuals who had lost family members to COVID and students who had come down with COVID. There was a heightened sense of how to address these issues and increased flexibility.”
The number one lesson, Director McCullough says, is to listen. “The small signals can have significant meaning. It can be like a student saying, ‘I’m having trouble or difficulty doing this.’ But that may be a signal to a more significant underlying issue. For example, a few students wanted more points of connection with peers. As a result, we asked several instructors to have more synchronous discussions around topic areas. And while not everyone can participate, it’s opened up a higher level of understanding, communication and camaraderie with their peers.”
Secondly, he emphasizes the ability to respond to change. “While we are an asynchronous program, by and large, we’ve pivoted and are including synchronous discussions in most courses, which allows for much greater contact, awareness and understanding. It also allows us to start to address some of the difficult conversations around diversity, equity and inclusion, and those conversations are best had synchronously. This allows for broader in-person discussions on why COVID-19 does not have an equal impact across all populations. Why did its impact have a more significant effect on the most vulnerable? And so, stepping back has allowed us to get deeper into that space of addressing public health in vulnerable populations.”
Finally, the Program learned to have a better relationship with community partners. “We’ve been able to say to Flint in particular that we have developed our free course, and it’s open to you. It helps to improve community health. We also created our workforce development efforts and brought some tools in a webinar format that allowed communities to increase their impact.”