Oregon State University College of Public Health and Human Sciences

Corvallis, OR

“I was following the development of SARS since fall 2002 [when there were reports] of a mysterious new contagious and lethal disease that emerged in South China. When it started to spread outside China, I followed the news and statistics daily until the pandemic ended,” says Professor and Director Chunhuei Chi of the Center for Global Health, College of Public Health and Human Sciences in Oregon State University. “This unique experience made me (and most public health professionals in Taiwan, Vietnam and Singapore, three nations that were hit the hardest in 2003 SARS) ultra-sensitive [to] any news of a new contagious disease in China.” 

Professor Chi’s attention to the current pandemic began in the latter part of December 2019 when Taiwan’s news began to report mysterious infections that were going around in the Wuhan area. “I was alerted but was hopeful that this should not be a repeat of 2003 SARS when China initially tried to hide it from the international community for several months. By early January 2020, it became obvious, unfortunately, [that this was] a repeat of the 2003 SARS [in] that China was not initially willing to disclose the nature of the new disease — several Chinese researchers’ publications in leading medical journals proved that the Chinese authority knew about the contagious nature of COVID-19 as early as November 2019. At that time, I realized that here we go again! These early attentions would become my strong and primary foundational knowledge about COVID-19, the pandemic of the century.” 

On January 21, 2020, Chunhuei received his first media interview from the Wall Street Journal Beijing Bureau on the nature of this new disease. “Because I was one of the few public health researchers who was prepared to address this emerging and highly contagious disease, I decided early on it would be my responsibility to communicate and inform the public on the nature of this disease and methods of prevention and control. Media interviews are an important venue for ‘translative science,’ which is gathering and synthesizing information, statistics and research evidence, and communicating with the public via an easily accessible message.” 

Chunhuei continues, “My active engagement with the media also provided many other channels of communication, ranging from regional, national and international webinar talks (such as Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and Rotary Club of Summerset, England). I had other opportunities to communicate with different communities. Likewise, I was invited to participate in numerous committees addressing COVID-19 safety (such as the PAC-12 Health and Safety Committee). I saw these engagements as both a public health intellectual’s social responsibility and an opportunity for an academician to have a direct impact on communities.” 

But there were challenges. “The biggest challenge of media interviews is the evolving knowledge and constant new discoveries of the COVID-19 disease and the SARS-CoV-2 virus. As is typically the case in science, most knowledge is accurate in a timeframe and can potentially be proven wrong. COVID-19 knowledge is constantly being revised, and some earlier research, including that published in the world’s top journals, was proven wrong later. As a public health scholar, I have to keep up to date on all relevant knowledge. Each media interview is like an oral exam to me, which is what I told my students. What I [say] will become a permanent public record. The toughest interview [I gave] was on the COVID-19 vaccine, and the target audience was physicians and medical researchers. That interview took me 12 hours of study and preparation, in addition to the knowledge I already acquired prior to the interview. The first one-and-half years of remote teaching and working [could] be depressing, as we were isolated from our relatives, friends, colleagues and students without knowing when this [would] end. It was the notion that I can contribute to public safety and the early ending of this pandemic that motivated me in my work and life during the pandemic.”

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