University of Memphis School of Public Health

Memphis, TN

When they first became aware of the dire threat of COVID-19 at the University of Memphis School of Public Health, and even before there was a case in Tennessee, Dean Ashish Joshi contacted the university president to offer the school’s services in pandemic planning and response. Immediately, the dean became part of the president’s COVID response leadership team. Their faculty served on various committees, contributing expertise to the university’s COVID policies and communication related to masking, social distancing, physical plant cleaning procedures, transition to online instruction, return to campus, case reporting, modified freshman orientation, campus vaccine distribution — even guidelines for the marching band’s practice. 

In addition, the School of Public Health collaborated with the metropolitan (Shelby County) health department to measure compliance with Memphis’ city-wide facial mask ordinance and the Shelby County Health Directive. Their research used two methods of direct observation to examine pre-post trends of mask usage: direct observation of mask usage in retail settings and review of videotapes captured by city cameras of outdoor public areas. With oversight by two faculty, four MPH students counted the number of individuals wearing masks correctly (covering mouth and nose) in 20 heavily trafficked large retail locations (e.g., groceries, home improvement stores) across the county. Site locations were randomly selected by the Shelby County Health Department, with 10 sites being in zip codes with high COVID-19 transmission and 10 in zip codes with low rates of COVID-19 transmission. Results were provided to the mayor’s COVID-19 Joint Task Force to guide their continued COVID response. Additionally, the public health graduate students reviewed a total of 44 hours of video tapes of public areas provided by the Memphis Police Department to examine mask compliance.  

Overall, they say they learned the importance of promoting the school’s expertise and value to a variety of stakeholders and the need to be nimble and politically astute. Future changes would include enhanced, more timely communication and partnership with logistics experts who can provide strategic advice on distribution tactics.  

Dean Joshi notes, “I think I would just add that a coping, adaptability, resilience and empathy (CARE) curriculum is an important learning for the public health workforce and the next-generation public health leaders.”

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