The University of North Texas Health Science Center School of Public Health was quick to respond to COVID-19. Faculty were involved with local and state public health agencies in the early months of 2020 as alerts and planning began taking shape, and the school was among the first in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex to respond to the call for help from the local public health department. Their students were immediately hired to conduct contact tracing at the Tarrant County Public Health Department. Not only did these professionals-in-training play an important role in community response, they also gained real-world leadership experience in meeting a major public health threat like COVID-19 head on.
Mobilization began in March 2020, first through volunteerism and then as students took on temporary, paid positions with the Tarrant County Public Health Department through federal Coronavirus, Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act funding. Classes in their residential cohort programs were quickly and successfully moved online, enabling students to arrange their public health department training and work schedules around their academic responsibilities. The spring and summer semesters of 2022 were challenging, but they welcomed the opportunity to serve the community during its time of greatest need.
According to Sally Crocker, associate director, academic communications, “Our school also recognized the need to support the students themselves, who were feeling the same emotions, fears and anxieties as all the community and the nation. Our student food pantry was open, counseling was available, and our student services division offered a host of other resources. Our university also collaborated in March 2020 with community partners to open a COVID-19 testing site for first responders, which then expanded to include health professionals, transit employees and sanitation workers. Our School of Public Health faculty, particularly Dr. Diana Cervantes and Dr. Rajesh Nandy, were front and center in fielding media inquiries, providing television, print, radio and online news interviews that shared science-based guidance for the public and analyzing data that was recognized and relied on by the Texas Governor’s Office.”
But their most important impact was made through the quick response and support they provided to the Tarrant County Public Health Department — where emergency response resources were very limited. The viral outbreak revealed the many gaps and weaknesses in the local and regional public health systems.
There were challenges though: As an academic institution, the biggest challenge was the immediate pivot to online education and sole reliance on video conferencing for communication, planning and execution of the university’s mission. The School of Public Health responded well and came to find that there were many advantages to operating in a virtual environment. In teaching, research and service, several indicators of productivity and effectiveness increased. The lessons learned from the pandemic have changed how the school works in positive ways.
The HSC School of Public Health cites lessons learned. Lesson one: Trust affects how people behave and the effectiveness of public health initiatives. A lack of trust will undermine public confidence in necessary public health measures. We must work alongside our communities to build trust – an authentic community engagement approach is critical. Lesson two: We live in an era of misinformation, and social media magnifies its spread. We need to find better ways to educate people on how to spot misinformation and critically analyze new health information.