The Rutgers School of Public Health has long recognized that we live in an interconnected global society prone to pandemics such as COVID-19. As such, the school immediately realized that COVID-19 was a global threat that would require coordinated action.
Early on, the Rutgers School of Public Health recognized that to address COVID-19, they needed to partner with local, state and federal entities, as well as community organizations and the press, to offer their resources and expertise. The school partnered with the New Jersey Department of Health and the Office of the Governor on several key initiatives, including contact tracing. The school’s faculty, staff and students were also quick to pivot their work to address the social, psychological, biological and financial implications of the pandemic, offering their unique expertise and skills. But the safety of Rutgers’ faculty, staff and students was of utmost importance. They were one of the first units to pivot to remote education and work within the university. Faculty also assisted with the university’s COVID-19 planning and response, including the decision to mandate vaccines for all university personnel and students, becoming the first major university in the country to do so.
The Rutgers School of Public Health launched New Jersey’s Community Contact Tracing Corps Program, a key step toward slowing the community spread of COVID-19, as the state began to ease its initial social distancing guidelines. Working closely with the New Jersey Department of Health, the school trained a diverse contact tracing workforce that included people from across the state and students studying public health, social work and related fields at Rutgers and other universities and colleges. The school trained over 1,000 contact tracers using materials and tools developed by Rutgers School of Public Health faculty and staff. The Community Contact Tracing Corps assisted local health departments, who regularly undertake contact tracing for infectious diseases like hepatitis A and HIV, along with the influx of COVID-19 cases, by providing much needed support in the form of in-depth interviews with those infected and any close contacts.
In addition, the Rutgers School of Public Health has always been committed to disseminating accurate, timely and clear communication and data to where various people and populations — including those at their own university — get information. The school began working with journalists early in the pandemic, hosting a press conference in March of 2020 with various public health experts, clinicians and elected officials. They briefed media outlets on the virus and ensured accurate information from a diverse group of experts reached many audiences. Rutgers School of Public Health experts became the go-to and trusted voices for COVID-19 information in New Jersey and beyond. Experts lent their voices to TV, radio and print publications and were featured on CNN, Bloomberg and publications like The New York Times, Washington Post and in all New Jersey outlets.
The field of public health has always faced challenges, with the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbating poorly funded and supported public health systems. Early on, Rutgers School of Public Health faculty, staff and students found that it was challenging for many to accept that the pandemic was much more than a biological phenomenon. The pandemic, which is still disproportionately burdening many marginalized people and populations, has social, psychological and financial effects that all impact overall health and well-being of people.
According to Dean Perry N. Halkitis, there will be other pandemics and we have to learn from the past. “Relying solely on biomedical models, which are based on the notion that people are rationale operators, is failing us. We must work together as health professionals to break the barriers that exist and prevent us from learning the past.” Moreover, “stigmatizing illnesses and people who have them aids in their proliferation. It delays testing and treatment and increases burdens on various disproportionately impacted groups. … Our job as a leading school of public health is to continue training agile public health practitioners who will lead us in developing equitable solutions to new public health challenges. We must also support research and researchers who are committed to achieving social justice and health equity through their work and partner with community organizations to have a true impact. Finally, public health must be recognized as an equal partner to medicine in the management and prevention of pandemics.”