In the spring of 2020, St. Ambrose University, Master of Public Health Program held a meeting to make a decision about closing the dorms and shifting online. This was before they had a single case, locally, but the situation in the larger cities was already serious. The MPH program became a key member of the COVID response team and produced a number of short videos to unpack concepts like “flattening the curve” and other newly emerging terms and concepts that are standard in PH/epidemiology that other faculty, students and members of the University’s leadership team valued and circulated widely. Additionally, they prepared weekly information on the virus for leadership/cabinet and for the community. These were mini-lit reviews and county-specific data summaries titled “COVID situational reports.” The data and information provided by the MPH program informed policies and decision-making for the University. The program’s focus was to share the latest data that tempered the massive “mis-” and disinformation that was emerging during the first year and beyond.
Says Program Director/Professor Melissa Sharer, “We intentionally started our MPH program in 2018 as an online program, this was linked to our values of social justice and access. Many of our students were on the frontlines of the pandemic and felt the need for more information to help them understand how to sort/sift through mis-/disinformation and how to best live and work and support others during COVID. In response to COVID-19 we adapted by preparing informational videos, lunch-and-learns, weekly situation reports for the university that we also shared with the broader community and informal sharing of the COVID-19 experiences ‘at home’ via MPH family emails.”
Professor Sharer explains, “For us, the biggest challenge was navigating the political considerations for a university situated at the border between two states. Our university is within the state of Iowa, but many of our faculty, staff and students live in Illinois. We were navigating the political and safety concerns of our bi-state positioning as the COVID-19 pandemic was emerging. In the early days of the pandemic, the governor of Illinois declared a lockdown before there was a single case of COVID-19 in our local area. In contrast, the governor of Iowa shut down the monitoring systems well before the pandemic was over.” Sharer continues, “Locally, one of the greatest challenges was the deviation in state-level policy and public health recommendations in Iowa versus Illinois. In Iowa, state regulations limited policies universities could take, including specific legislation limiting mask mandates and vaccination requirements, on penalty of withdrawal of state funds for student grants.”
“We as a nation and a world need to continue to strengthen the PH infrastructure to be able to be nimble and efficient in any PH crisis. We also need to prepare students to combat mis-/disinformation in a way that inspires change collectively in our community and world.” Sharer adds that “the examples of systemic racism that came out at the time of COVID-19 are inextricably part of our national COVID-19 story and should be linked and taught and help us continue to work to combat inequity that is linked to racism and privilege.”