As New York City became an epicenter of the disease early in 2020, students and staff at the University at Albany School of Public Health (UAlbany) began to recognize the global impact of the outbreak and knew that life as normal was about to change. There was much uncertainty, but close ties to the community at UAlbany enabled them to work hard as a school to help understand, fight and track the novel coronavirus outbreak.
UAlbany’s work with the New York State Department of Health (NYSDOH) was absolutely critical for the generation of timely scientific knowledge, including the first comprehensive epidemiological report on the emergence of COVID-19 from a U.S. state in a peer-reviewed publication. The school provided information on how many people were infected, diagnosed, hospitalized, and more. This work essentially gave a “snapshot” look at the pandemic, answering questions that were unknown at the time. Early on, UAlbany also worked with NYSDOH colleagues to analyze the effectiveness of hydroxychloroquine and azithromycin to determine whether these drugs made a difference in treatment. The study added critical information to the evidence base, as benefits were not observed for hydroxychloroquine treatment, with or without azithromycin, in the critically ill patients who were studied. This enabled medical practitioners to make more informed decisions for hospitalized patients. The School of Public Health also contributed to a landmark study of multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children in relation to COVID-19, which helped healthcare professionals across the US diagnose this condition. Maternal and child health experts from the school were also tapped to support the state’s COVID-19 Maternity Task Force by helping to review the impact of COVID-19 on pregnancy. These are just a few examples of the many research papers and reports UAlbany faculty and students have published on Covid-19.
UAlbany Students, who represent several countries and US states, quickly began assisting health departments and public health nonprofit organizations, many of which struggled with a lack of resources and personnel alongside a significant increase in their workload. This meant that the students truly were learning “on the ground,” often completing work that would have in previous years been assigned to full-time employees. Their willingness to learn and their eagerness to help certainly made a remarkable difference for the public health workforce as they responded to COVID-19.
Aside from impactful work with the local community, UAlbany worked to navigate the pandemic on campus. An operational challenge the school faced was continuing to deliver high-quality education and hands-on learning opportunities when their usual methods were not possible. With a very short turnaround time, UAlbany faculty and mentors rose to the occasion and pivoting their courses and guidance to online formats. Now that they have returned to in-person learning, some faculty still utilize digital technologies to enhance the learning experience — for example, Zoom has allowed professors to more easily bring in nationally and internationally recognized guest speakers who provide invaluable insight and networking opportunities for our students.
Among the many different hardworking individuals at UAlbany, one student stands out. Lou Rotkowitz, a former MPH student, worked full-time as an emergency room physician in New York City while working toward his degree. In March 2020 he contracted the virus after intubating a COVID-19 patient and became severely ill, struggling with debilitating symptoms. Lou felt even more motivated to finish his MPH degree because of this experience so that he could better help his patients, showing passion and dedication on the frontline that is exactly what is needed in the public health field.
Over the course of the pandemic, UAlbany was reminded of the importance of health communication. It’s critical to send the right message, at the right time, to the right people, through the right medium. They say that going forward, public health professionals must have better systems and checks in place to ensure that messaging is applicable and understandable and that actions people need to take are clearly explained in layman’s terms.
The school has also seen clearly throughout the pandemic why efforts must focus on eliminating health disparities, especially on determining where and how disparities emerge. Examining optimal points of intervention, for COVID-19 and other public health concerns, can enhance service delivery and fine tune policy — ultimately improving the health of so many. As public health educators, it’s critical to provide the next generation of public health professionals with the tools to be able to understand and address health disparities in all of the work that they do.