In January of 2020, when it became clear that COVID-19 was spreading beyond the borders of Wuhan, China, University of Georgia College of Public Health faculty began speaking with community groups and local media to put the outbreak in context but also warn of the virus’ potential to reach the US. The tone of the discussion began to shift in late February when cases were reported in Georgia. By March of 2020, with University of Georgia (UGA) students away on their spring break, it had become clear that COVID-19 cases were rising dramatically in Georgia and across the US. The governor and board of regents were likely to close schools statewide.
Says Dean Marsha Davis, “The moment was, dare I say, unprecedented, and we weren’t sure what the next days or weeks would look like, but together, when our college leadership asked, ‘What can we do?’ the answer was clear: We could leverage the passion and knowledge of our faculty, staff and students to help educate and guide the public through these next few weeks.”
In the two weeks that UGA closed, before resuming virtual classes, the college hosted a 48-hour COVID-19 virtual hackathon, recruiting over 90 public health students to research and develop public health messaging, from infographics and data visualizations to policy briefs, and even TikToks — all in aid of supporting communities with useful, evidence-based information on COVID-19. The projects addressed issues like how to talk to kids about the coronavirus, how to tell the difference between allergies and COVID-19 symptoms, and the possible impact of shelter-in-place policies on homelessness and domestic violence. Some students created COVID-19 lesson plans for middle schoolers; some tackled data visualization projects to help the general public make sense of the changing case numbers. The resources were made available to the public for free and were widely accessed by nonprofits, local government and faith organizations in the early weeks of the pandemic.
Dean Davis says, “As a college, we felt called to provide leadership and information to guide policymaking that is grounded in scientific evidence. The hackathon was the natural first step to act collectively as a college, while individual faculty and students were pivoting their research and service activities to contribute to the COVID-19 response.”
In addition to faculty making themselves available to local municipal leaders and the news media to offer expert guidance on the pandemic as it evolved, there are two efforts that were especially meaningful, notes Davis. “A team of faculty and students partnered with health care systems in northeast Georgia, where Athens is based, and in rural South Georgia to predict COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations to help health care providers prepare for surges. Community and hospital leaders say these reports helped to provide some certainty in uncertain times and served as tools to underline the need for community safety protocols. In addition, faculty and students from our department of environmental health science launched and continue to lead a wastewater surveillance project to track SARS-CoV-2 in sewage samples. The data is generated and uploaded weekly to a publicly accessible database. The wastewater surveillance work has proven to be a timelier predictor of community surges than official case counts, especially as at-home testing has become more common. Local leaders now depend on this work to make community safety decisions that impact Athens-Clarke County residents, the health district and the thousands of tourists who visit Athens each year.”
There were challenges though as Georgia and UGA felt the consequences of the spread of misinformation about COVID-19 and COVID-19 vaccines. Says Davis, “Some state political leaders felt motivated to act as if the pandemic was over and that basic community safety protocols were unnecessary when the evidence suggested otherwise. This led to unfortunate clashes in the political arenas that spilled over onto campus and into the classroom. I’m sorry to say that much of the research our faculty conducted became less welcome to report as continuing to address the pandemic beyond the spring of 2021 became a somewhat controversial act. This experience continues to weigh on our college community as it seems that across our field, trust in science and scientists is eroding.”
Davis says she’s learned several lessons from the pandemic, personally and professionally. “One lesson is that even on my most despairing days, all I had to do was look to my faculty, staff or students to feel inspired by their resilience, their creativity, their fight to continue the work of public health. I’m truly hopeful for the next generation of public health professionals who will take this drive and these lessons into their careers and create a healthier world for all that our college envisions.” She continues, “I shouldn’t take for granted the public or communities we serve. Engagement, especially with vulnerable and marginalized communities, revealed deep wells of misunderstanding and mistrust that we helped to build because we just didn’t engage frequently or meaningfully outside of moments of crisis. Trust in public health work is built day-by-day, in the days between acute crises. That said, we’re a college with 60 faculty. Our state health districts and public health workforce has been woefully underfunded in Georgia for decades. This is the challenge going forward: How can we convince policymakers to fund adequate public health services that not only have the capacity to respond to the next pandemic, but address the ongoing and persistent concerns like high maternal mortality, high rates of cardiovascular disease and diabetes, HIV, opioids and so on? What needs to change is that the public health community comes off the sidelines to advocate for our field and our work.”
She adds: “I want to emphasize the incredible dedication of our faculty and staff to not only contribute to COVID-19 response and research, but to continue to teach and mentor our students in very difficult, and often times, frustrating circumstances. Similarly, I’m inspired by how eager our students were to contribute to the local COVID-19 response and how creative they were. We as academic public health leaders need to do all we can to listen and engage with them to support their passions into careers that will benefit us all.”