Tulane University School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine

New Orleans, LA

At Tulane University School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine (SPHTM), COVID-19 was an obvious opportunity to live out its mission of acting as stewards of the first school of public health in the United States.  

“We encouraged our faculty and students alike to be innovative and independent thinkers, mobilizing a gift from a generous donor to support immediate, grassroots efforts to help the Greater New Orleans community. This funding helped older Vietnamese Americans in an underserved neighborhood get information (in both English and Vietnamese) and provided mitigation tools like masks and hand sanitizer. Funding also helped a local community health center address the mental health of patients in light of the pandemic while separately assisting the center to switch to telehealth,” says Senior Director of Communications Dee Boling.  

“Tulane in general and SPHTM specifically played a direct role with state and city government, providing guidance to address the COVID-19 pandemic. Faculty, staff and students were on the front lines volunteering at mobile testing sites.”  

Adds Dean Dr. Thomas LaVeist, “Centers and programs of the school distributed masks to community members. Faculty participated in city and state responses and even consulted with some corporate and nonprofit entities on their responses.” 

Boling says that they knew as early as January 2020 that COVID-19 (before it was even called that) was emerging as a potential global threat. “School officials began meeting regularly to discuss the school and local response to what was shaping up to become a pandemic. New Orleans, however, was an early entrant to the American caseload for COVID-19, so the discussions quickly went from theoretical to practical. How to protect students, staff and faculty. How the school could assist the university and local government. Everything happened quickly. We went from thinking, ‘How could we inform the public about this threat?’ to closing our physical offices and working from home. As a school, we had already been using Zoom for online classes and meetings with groups far from New Orleans, so we really had a leg up in shifting to the virtual world, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t without bumps. We had to mobilize to get access to some students who didn’t have internet or maybe didn’t even have a reliable laptop. Several of our deans spent countless hours assisting students and faculty to adjust to a virtual-only format for classes.” 

Faculty mobilized on the research front as well, conducting serology research, assessing the experiences of low-income patients, testing wastewater, addressing the health of women and children in Latin America, assessing college student well-being and testing prophylactic response. A number of faculty were involved in highlighting the needs of the incarcerated, writing an open letter calling for the reduction in the Orleans Parish Justice Center population in the interest of health to avoid widespread infection. 

In addition, Dean LaVeist co-chaired the Louisiana COVID-19 Health Equity Task Force, an initiative that looked at immediate ways to reduce or eliminate disparities in the communities impacted by COVID-19. While in many Southern states, communities of color experienced lower vaccination rates than their white counterparts, in Louisiana, those statistics were reversed. The dean was also instrumental in getting the National Academy of Medicine along with corporate partners to promote the vaccine, especially to people of color who might be vaccine hesitant.  

They also established a regular newsletter specific to COVID-19, put together by a former U.S. intelligence officer who had done a similar newsletter in response to the spread of past infectious diseases, including H1N1 and Ebola. The newsletter was initially shared five days a week, and later twice a week, with reports from news sources all over the world. The response was tremendous and the Tulane Outbreak, as it was called, developed a very loyal following. The audience loved being kept informed on the day-to-day and week-to-week changes on COVID, covering topics such as scientific publications, surveillance, official reporting, misinformation and the psychological impact. Each newsletter even included something on the lighter side. 

A “daily briefing” email was also instituted as part of a plan to be as transparent as possible to the school community. The briefings included ways to get help with online classes, changes to practicum requirements due to the virus, where the community could physically go for help if needed, where testing was available, updates to research protocols impacted by the pandemic and ways the community could get involved to help. School leadership was meeting regularly, and those meetings informed the briefings, which were a lifeline for many. The briefings have been so successful that they are a regular part of Tulane’s emergency planning now. 

Boling points to lessons learned. “One lesson we’ve tried to highlight throughout the pandemic has been around recognizing who is most impacted by infectious diseases like COVID-19. All populations were affected, but in the U.S., workers who could not easily isolate and work from home, people who live in denser populations with others and people who work in service industries — these communities were all more significantly impacted. Often these are people of color who already experience health inequity and something like COVID-19 only exacerbated the situation. We collectively need to address this situation so that Black and Brown Americans are not automatically more significantly impacted any time we have an outbreak or health crisis.” 

Boling continues, “We have also learned that words and communication matter. The national response started out flat-footed by sending out the message that masks were not needed, then reversed that advice. Project Warp Speed suggested that corners were being cut in the interest of speed to develop a vaccine. Messaging has been unclear and unnecessarily complex. To help the most people, messaging needs to be clear and unambiguous, and helpful to the largest number of people. Unfortunately, that mixed messaging left room for misinformation and use of the pandemic for political purposes.”

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