At Temple University College of Public Health, Interim Dean Jennifer Ibrahim recalls dealing with COVID-19 rapidly spreading through Philadelphia’s communities, misinformation on the spread and potential “cures,” and an economic infrastructure that would not support a nation in lockdown.
Interim Dean Ibrahim says, “Drawing from our knowledge of social determinants of health, many of us knew early on that the pandemic would disproportionately impact our communities, and we had to be prepared to do more than just address the virus. The pandemic highlighted structural and social issues that have long plagued our nation but never came to a boiling point where we had no choice but to address them.”
Ibrahim notes that “the breadth of our disciplines allowed us to mobilize quickly and begin working to address disparities in our local communities with vulnerable populations. We began working first to educate local residents on the importance of masking and social distancing and set up a contact tracing certificate program in partnership with the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.”
One of the first things several departments within the college did was donate PPE and equipment to Temple University Hospital, including a ventilator, gloves and masks. And while a vaccine was in development, they worked with the City of Philadelphia to lobby the state government for the language pertaining to the use of emergency powers to be modified to include several of their disciplines so that they could enlist students from programs other than nursing — including physical therapy, occupational therapy and athletic training, as well as students from Temple’s School of Pharmacy — to help in the wake of healthcare workforce shortages.
Later, once vaccines became available, Temple created a vaccination program called RapidVax. With a $1.2M grant from the City of Philadelphia, they vaccinated and boosted thousands of local residents — including hosting clinics in communities with vulnerable populations as well as on-campus clinics for students, faculty and staff. This program also included significant efforts to educate residents on the importance and safety of vaccination to fight vaccine hesitancy.
Ibrahim recalls, “In fact, some of our nursing students and faculty were among the first to administer vaccinations when doses became available in December of 2020. Soon thereafter, we began hosting vaccine clinics on campus staffed by College of Public Health volunteers.”
But there were difficulties, says Ibrahim. “Building trust in our local communities was a challenge. Fighting vaccine hesitancy in neighborhoods heavily populated by ethnic groups who historically have had reasons not to trust the government required a concerted educational public relations campaign, led in large part by faculty in our Department of Social and Behavioral Sciences. We faced challenges regarding getting our early vaccine clinics on campus up and running, with the complexity of coordinating with the university, our hospital system and city officials on short notice. We also encountered the standard issues of obtaining and paying for PPE for our students and faculty — which was significant as a school of public health with multiple clinical disciplines. We also had to deal with issues related to required clinical hours for our clinical programs. We didn’t want to see students wind up with delayed graduation, so in the summer of 2020, we piloted a summer lab session blending stay-home online lectures with safe in-person instruction for students whose programs require this.”
She points to the insight gained. “The pandemic forced us to do several things that were long overdue. While we talk about the need for interprofessional education and practice, it had largely been in an academic context until COVID hit. The urgency of an effective and coordinated response forced us to think beyond the traditional healthcare providers — doctors and nurses — and to a broader health care workforce that included athletic trainers, physical therapists and occupational therapists. It made us think about the social determinants of health and the roles that public health practitioners and social workers had to support our communities. COVID-19 was a major catalyst for our interprofessional practice and research. Necessity drove our innovation, and now there is no looking back.”
She continues, “The second lesson was about the way we approached our teaching. For several years before COVID, we had several fully online degree programs, but they were restricted to just those online programs. As part of our mission, we strive to provide students with access to high-quality education. However, we had not fully grasped the different ways of meeting our students where they are — and the associated benefits — until the pandemic forced us to pivot to be fully online. COVID showed us that flexibility in learning opens up more educational possibilities for our students. For example, a working student could not have participated in a lunch-and-learn from their desk at work when we only offered these events in person. Offering these online creates opportunities for more people. Similarly, a student who has to care for a sick child can still participate in class when it’s offered remotely — and not have to choose between school and family.”