Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center School of Population and Public Health

Lubbock, TX

“In January 2020, I returned from the Philippines,” remembers Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center School of Population and Public Health Department Chair Theresa Byrd. “We had taken a group of nursing and public health students there for a global learning experience. We heard then that a coronavirus was spreading. My original thought was, ‘Oh just another coronavirus — probably not a big deal.” Next, I was at a Mardi Gras party in February, and one of our bench scientists from the graduate school was sharing that she thought this virus was going to go wild. That it could be a big deal. I trust her science, so I thought, hmmm, maybe we ought to be concerned. By March 17th, we were all working from home. I realized this really was a global pandemic. My reaction was a little bit of fear and a lot of public health energy! I started right then and there learning all I could, following the news, internet and scientific reports and sharing what I was learning with others.”  

“Our institution was a bit slow to mobilize,” Professor Byrd continues. “We did have everyone work from home. Students all went online overnight. We were well prepared to do this since we already have a completely online MPH. We learned to use Zoom for classes. A COVID-19 task force was formed — at first no one from public health was on it. When my dean told me he was going to a COVID-19 task force meeting and asked what message I had from public health, my answer was, ’Tell them they need to put someone from public health on the committee.’ After that, I was added.” 

She says they planned ways to keep students, faculty and staff engaged while working from home, how to deal with overfilled hospitals and ERs, and how to get as many people as possible vaccinated. Byrd adds that “of course, here in Texas, our governor stepped in to let us know we could not mandate vaccines or masks, so that was an issue. We worked with the local Health Department to develop messaging and to study vaccine hesitancy. We surveyed our faculty and staff about their intentions to be vaccinated and helped to develop appropriate messaging. There was a LOT of hard work!” 

But there were challenges — particularly political ones. “And we really couldn’t overcome them,” says Byrd. “As the pandemic became a political issue. The issue was framed as ‘freedom’ instead of as a public health emergency. In our region, many people did not (and still don’t) believe that COVID-19 was an emergency. Our vaccination rate is only 49%, and only 18% are boosted. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) also challenged us as they continued to change policies, sometimes not necessarily for scientific reasons.” 

She points to lessons learned. “It is so important not to politicize public health issues and to let the experts be in charge! And the US needs to update its method of ensuring that equipment and PPE is always abundant and available (and not expired!).”  

She adds that “I think that this (still ongoing) pandemic has changed all of us. I know that life expectancy has decreased in the US and that mental health issues abound. In my mind, most of us are not yet ‘ok.’ I had no idea how long-term separation from colleagues and friends would affect my mental health and change me in so many ways. I think most of my colleagues feel the same. I guess it gives us insight into how the world felt in 1918.”

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