University of Arizona’s Mel and Enid Zuckerman College of Public Health

Tucson, AZ

The gravity of the COVID-19 pandemic really hit home at the University of Arizona’s Mel and Enid Zuckerman College of Public Health when colleagues in regional hospitals began reporting that they were overwhelmed and out of beds and then that people were dying. The need emerged to support not just health services colleagues, but everyone in the broader community.  

First, the UArizona shut down in-person work and classes, and within two weeks, courses went remote on Zoom. “It was an amazingly quick response, and it did not always go smoothly, but it happened and saved many from early infection with COVID,” says Dean Iman Hakim.  

Second, once it was clear that masking was a very effective way to prevent transmission, all the regional leadership at the university, City of Tucson, and Pima County promoted wearing masks to stop the spread. Soon people in the region also began turning to the university for answers — how to prevent infection and what to do if someone in the family was infected. Public health faculty worked closely with the Pima County Health Department, the City of Tucson and the leadership at the University of Arizona to answer the community’s questions with the best available answers from the limited data at the time and to communicate that information widely, clearly and effectively. Leadership and organizations mobilized rapidly, especially when it came to health care, promoting social distancing, hand hygiene, and soon masking both internally at UArizona and externally in the community.  

Faculty and students jumped into action to respond to the COVID threat and their efforts were often successful. In particular, the Mobile Health Unit (MHU) teams, one based in Phoenix and the other in Tucson, both went to work as soon as the pandemic hit. First, they used their contact lists to call clients and provide accurate information to people in Spanish-speaking communities where misinformation was common. They also promoted the facts on their established and trusted social media channels. Then, once the vaccine was available, the MHUs took the vaccine to underserved communities that did not have access. So far, they’ve delivered more than 70,000 vaccines.  

However, it was challenging to convince some people to modify behaviors based on underlying knowledge about how to stop the spread of COVID. In many ways, misinformation became the most dangerous foe, and it was spread rapidly through social media. It was essentially a communications challenge for the UArizona, says Dean Hakim. “How do we change minds when people have their mind made up already due to ideological affiliation? First, people refused to wear masks. Then, when, amazingly, the vaccines became available, it was a logistical challenge to distribute the vaccine to millions. But it was a challenge we were able to meet in collaboration with regional and state governments,” she says. “The bigger challenge was that some people did not trust the vaccine and refused to take it, which meant that they were at risk, and so were their friends, family members and co-workers.”  

“Science can give us answers and develop vaccines at astonishing speed, but it can’t change minds. We know how to stop the spread of a disease like COVID, but we have to convince people to shift behaviors in order to implement prevention measures. In a society that lacks trust in public health experts and leaders, there is no easy answer to fighting infectious disease. Ultimately, to improve pandemic response, health care providers and civic leaders need to build trust in their communities so that effective prevention measures will be adopted, followed and respected,” says Hakim. “So many talented individuals have dedicated their lives to public health, and yet we face information and communication challenges that we have never seen before as misinformation and disinformation is spread rapidly through social media channels, almost always due to underlying financial motives. The path to winning back public trust and countering disinformation with facts will require all of our intelligence and expertise.”

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