“Rather than one clear moment, the growing threat of the pandemic occurred in small stages, addressing increasing student needs while responding to multiple requests from local and state public health agencies,” says Director of Communications and Marketing Rob Schroeder at the University of Illinois at Chicago School of Public Health. “Our approach was to remain flexible to meet student concerns and academic needs, while adapting to the latest public health guidance.”
Adds Dean Wayne Giles, “It became clear to us as a school that in a moment of global crisis, this was public health’s moment to lead and shape a response that recognized social, economic and political determinants of health.”
When the COVID response started in March 2020, the School was receiving requests for support from multiple health departments including the Illinois Department of Public Health, Cook County, Chicago, as well as a number of community-based organizations, businesses, and faculty and staff at UIC. They found that many of the requests were getting lost and faculty were overburdened by the pleas for help. Schroeder says, “We created an incident command structure with one email address to handle all requests. The email address was monitored 24/7 and we made sure that we responded to all requests in a timely manner. Members of the incident command structure included faculty and staff across all academic departments and the administration. There was initially an incident command meeting twice weekly which as the pandemic evolved went to weekly and then monthly meetings.”
Along with civic organizations and city leaders, UIC co-led the launch of ChiTracing, a corps of Chicago-based contact tracers composed of community members new to the field of public health. Along with developing training for the crucial task of contact tracing, they also focused on developing citizen scientist and research skills among contact tracers to bolster public health capacity in Chicago communities. They also led the development and implementation of the UIC COVID-19 Contact Tracing and Epidemiology program, providing contact tracing and resources for quarantine and isolation to the 45,000 members of the University of Illinois Chicago campus community.
Schroeder mentions that “the COVID pandemic exacerbated systemic disparities by income, education, occupation and race, which are caused by poverty, residential segregation and racism. It was imperative that we addressed, and continue to address, these structural barriers to health to ensure that all have an equal opportunity to obtain their optimal health.”
He points to the Center of Excellence in Maternal and Child Health, which recognized a need early in the pandemic to ensure pregnant people headed to a hospital to give birth were equipped with adequate PPE. “The Center brought together maternal and child health advocates and volunteers from around the state to create homemade masks, to protect pregnant moms and health care workers alike. This effort came at an early stage in the pandemic, before masks were universally adopted and readily available.”
He says there are still lessons to be learned. “1. The value and importance of timely hyperlocal data to identify communities at greatest risk and target interventions to those communities most in need; 2. The need to have a community-engaged approach that includes community health workers to implement interventions. Our researchers have stressed that public health interventions only go as far as public buy-in allows. We see a key need to develop and strengthen citizen scientists to assist in future public health endeavors and build community support for such efforts.”