University of Iowa College of Public Health

Iowa City, IA

A moment at the beginning of the pandemic stands out for Director of Communications and External Relations Dan McMillan at the University of Iowa College of Public Health: “For me, the moment of realization came on an evening in February 2020. We had worked for several weeks to stage a community event in which a group of our faculty and students used a new (to us) presentation style called Pecha Kucha to share stories about public health with an audience who knew little about our field. It was a wonderful evening with great energy, new connections and hopes for future gatherings. But throughout the evening there were also worried side conversations about the newly emerging coronavirus and what it meant for us. As we departed, someone said casually: ‘Take care everyone. It might be a while before we see each other again.’ Little did we know how long that would be.” 

Strong strategy guided the University of Iowa’s pandemic response: “At the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic, College of Public Health faculty stepped up to support the University of Iowa’s Critical Incident Management Team, helping to develop COVID-19 response strategies including preparation of safety protocols, technical expertise on proper building ventilation, guidance on PPE usage, planning for safe return to campus and effective health messaging to students, faculty, staff and the public,” says Edith Parker, dean of the University of Iowa College of Public Health. 

As health providers nationwide struggled to overcome a critical shortage of PPE for frontline health care workers, there was a desperate need for alternative materials and innovative methods to prolong the life of safety equipment. Iowa experts like Patrick O’Shaughnessy, professor of occupational and environmental health, played a leading part in evaluating the safety of PPE that had been manufactured from novel components, decontaminated using new technologies or produced by volunteers.  

A team of UI faculty, led by Joseph Cavanaugh, professor and head of biostatistics, worked with the Iowa Department of Public Health to analyze data and develop predictive models to help Iowa respond to the COVID pandemic. The team also developed an interactive tool to model the effects social distancing and face masks/shields could have on the future course of the disease in Iowa. 

Early on and continuing throughout the pandemic, College of Public Health students used their student-produced podcast, “From the Front Row,” to share information with fellow students and promote wider awareness about the public health response to COVID. The students interviewed infectious disease researchers, emergency response coordinators, health communications experts and many others to explore multiple dimensions of the pandemic.  

In spring 2020, doctoral student Anne Abbott led an innovative collaboration with local parks and recreation departments to produce materials that built awareness of social distancing etiquette while using outdoor public spaces during the COVID-19 pandemic. These materials, free and available for anyone to download, promoted behavioral uptake of COVID mitigation strategies in the community. 

Two important actions stood out from the university’s response: 

Safe reopening strategies: “College of Public Health faculty provided exceptional leadership in the production and dissemination of rapid research pertaining to workplace safety. In particular, these efforts were key to the University of Iowa’s plans to safely reopen the UI College of Dentistry’s clinics in the face of numerous COVID challenges. CPH faculty, led by Professor of Occupational and Environmental Health Renee Anthony, collaborated with campus colleagues to understand how to control aerosols and particles emitted during dental procedures. Their findings and recommendations helped UI safely reopen dental clinics, and this expert guidance was shared with other colleges of dentistry across the country.” 

Contact tracing: “During the COVID pandemic, public health students applied their training and gained invaluable firsthand experience in pandemic response through community-based internships and special projects. UI College of Public Health students helped lead the local coronavirus response while working as contact tracers at Johnson County Public Health. The students gathered information about positive cases from labs and clinics, called people who tested positive to work out who else may have been infected, then followed up with those potential cases to encourage staying home, social distancing and watching for COVID symptoms. The tracers also entered detailed data on each case and communicated with area employers to help prevent disease spread in the workplace.” 

One of the most significant lessons learned was about trust. “The severe breakdown in trust — particularly the distrust of scientists, health officials and other leaders at the local, state and national levels — may stand out as one of the most serious problems emerging from the COVID-19 pandemic. We need to restore the social connections and sense of shared purpose that have long been the underpinnings of our profession. These human connections have provided the impetus for the greatest public health achievements of the past, and they are essential for rising to the health challenges that lie ahead: a warming climate, rapidly aging populations and growing chronic conditions and yes, the next pandemic,” Parker concludes.

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Read the accounts of other public health institutions on their work around the COVID-19 pandemic.