Three of the faculty (Raskob, Bratzler, Wendelboe) of the University of Oklahoma Health Science Center Hudson College of Public Health were appointed to the health sciences center’s Special Pathogens and Preparedness Operations Team (SPPOT). The team first met in mid-January 2020 after the initial reports of the SARS-like outbreak in the Wuhan province of China. According to Interim Dean Dale Bratzler, “Several team members were well-informed of the worldwide outbreak of SARS in 2003, so we were immediately concerned about the possibility of worldwide spread of the new disease. After deliberation, we recommended the University president suspend all international travel (students, guest faculty and staff) in the third week of January 2020 (prior to President Trump’s lockdown of travel to China). Of course, the initial identification of a case in Washington state confirmed our fears. The SPPOT started meeting 2-3 days a week and have continued to meet as needed up until now.”
Initially, the most important actions were to close the campuses, move to virtual learning and mandate masks in all University facilities. The Hudson College of Public Health worked closely with the operations vice president to implement cleaning protocols in all facilities, work with all air handling units to increase air exchanges with outdoor air and install high-efficiency filters.
In December 2020, the College began deploying vaccination clinics. Dr. Bratzler developed an educational program to train all first- and second-year medical students, PA students and dental students to administer vaccines. Says Interim Dean Bratzler, “Working with our interprofessional faculty from across campus, we had our students (public health, medicine, nursing, pharmacy, allied health and dentistry) coordinate community vaccine clinics that delivered approximately 50,000 doses of COVID-19 vaccine from January through April 2021 to Oklahoma citizens, students, staff and faculty. The student teams also worked with our health center staff on the large undergraduate/graduate Norman campus to deliver more than 3,000 doses of vaccine to students in a single day. With faculty supervision, our interprofessional student teams (the ‘Unity Clinic’) continued to deliver the vaccine for months to come in multiple sites — such as churches and schools.”
Dr. Bratzler continues, “Not surprisingly, there was considerable pushback about the significance of COVID-19 and lots of vaccine hesitancy to address. For example, decisions to mandate masks in all University facilities or to move to virtual learning were not always popular with students and parents. We had to identify isolation housing on our main campus to accommodate students in residential living settings who tested positive. Early in the pandemic, we struggled with supplies of personal protective equipment. The subsequent legislative action limited our ability to require masks in classrooms.”
He also points to lessons learned: “I think we were surprised by the substantial pushback to the pandemic response. The rapid dissemination of invalid information about the disease and vaccines through social media inhibited some of our responses to the pandemic. As a result, our state performed quite poorly during the pandemic (as was profiled in the Commonwealth report on the pandemic response). On the positive side, we pulled together the resources from across our comprehensive health sciences center campus. We also engaged the teams of students that we had developed as a part of our interprofessional education training on campus. Clearly, there is a tremendous need for more training in public health. A large proportion of the public health workforce in our state has no formal training in public health. Second, public health has systematically been underfunded, which became apparent at the pandemic’s peak. With this in mind, substantial investments must be made in the public health workforce and pandemic preparedness for the future.”