At the University of Maryland School of Public Health, when the pandemic hit, they knew their role was to act quickly. Assistant Dean of Communications Kelly Blake says, “When COVID-19 first emerged, we knew that we had to mobilize as a School of Public Health. It was clear that this threat was like nothing we had seen in our lifetime. We immediately leaned on our dean’s rich leadership expertise in pandemic preparedness and response, as well as deep commitment to prioritizing the health and well-being of our school, campus and local community.”
The structure of leadership among the dean’s office at the University of Maryland was critical. “Based on his experience serving as the acting surgeon general during the Ebola outbreak in the Office of the Surgeon General and a USPHS Commissioned Corps officer, SPH Dean Boris Lushniak organized an ‘incident command system’ for the dean’s office leadership team so that we could respond quickly and appropriately to new information and communicate with the SPH community and our university and community colleagues and stakeholders,” Blake explains.
“Preparing our students, faculty and staff was paramount, as well as creating an open dialogue (via Zoom) with our community partners, Community Advisory Council and Dean’s Council. SPH leaders and faculty members played key roles chairing and/or serving on advisory committees both at the campus and community levels. We also formalized and led a standing Campus, County, State COVID-19 response team that met regularly to discuss current and future risks and concerns. This team of leaders continues to meet to this day.”
Blake adds that the “Stop COVID Study,” launched by the school’s Public Health Aerobiology Laboratory and led by Dr. Don Milton in the spring of 2020, has “been informing efforts to address indoor air quality to prevent the spread of COVID, flu and other viruses.”
“Our Center for Health Literacy and students with the UMD Public Health Beyond Borders organization created materials to help kids and young adults better understand risk and how to make decisions about mask wearing and activities that involved being around other people. Our Department of Family Science created materials for families, including age-appropriate information to support mental health.
Blake describes another national initiative to increase vaccination uptake in communities of color: “Our Center for Health Equity, which already partnered with Black-owned barbershops and hair salons for health promotion initiatives, expanded its reach through a partnership with the Black Coalition Against COVID and the Biden administration that aimed to train barbers and stylists to dispel misinformation and provide reliable sources of information about the COVID vaccine, and in many cases, also serve as vaccine clinic sites.”
There were also challenges. “We also have had to address the effect of the pandemic on the health and well-being of our local and national public health leaders and incorporate skills and services for our SPH members in their public health roles. As a school with heavy involvement with community partners in all aspects, these modifications required careful attention to personal, professional, university and societal needs,” says Erin McClure, chief of staff and diversity officer.
“Witnessing that the policymaking decisions were often not being driven by the recommendations of public health science was another challenge. This was the case nationally and even at the university level. Our researchers and SPH leaders were included in the committees that were making decisions and advising students, faculty, staff and the public about how to stay safe using plain language and the latest and best scientific understanding, however, public health-informed actions were not always incorporated. We often navigated tough decisions of when, how and with whom to push back on if we felt that policy decisions did not adequately reflect the current scientific evidence.”
Two lessons stand out for the University of Maryland, according to Blake. One, “Require training in plain language and risk communication for all working in public health,” and two, “Invest in formal community-academic-government partnerships.”
“This investment will also be critical in addressing health equity. The COVID-19 pandemic and co-pandemic of racism highlighted issues of unequal access and outcomes for underserved and underrepresented populations, particularly Black and Brown communities, and the resulting health disparities,” Blake concludes.