“As a former CDC scientist for almost 20 years, I have dealt with pandemics before,” says University of Pittsburgh School of Public Health Dean, Jonas Salk Professor in Population Health, Professor in Environmental and Occupational Health, Maureen Lichtveld. “What was and continues to be most surprising is that we are inadequately utilizing our knowledge of and experience with pandemics to counter COVID-19.” She stresses that our response to the pandemic lacked three fundamental components: 1) public health leadership and thus a systems-driven approach; 2) sustained investment in the floor of our public health home: the infrastructure that includes people, health departments and surveillance systems; and 3) the golden principle of crisis communication: be first, be right, be credible.”
Dean Lichtveld joined the University of Pittsburgh School of Public Health in January of 2021, when a new wave of COVID-19 cases gripped the nation and morbidity and mortality rates were spiking again. While most of the university was working remotely according to pandemic guidelines, she decided to be in the office every day to serve as a beacon in the sea of uncertainty. She adds, “As a collaborative leader in a new deanship, I exercised this critical aspect of leadership almost exclusively in the virtual space. Daily meetings with our executive team and all-hands introductory meetings signaled the start of a new era at Pitt Public Health and facilitated us moving forward.”
At the start of the pandemic, the school successfully switched to offer remote classes and other programming. This included celebrating them through virtual graduation ceremonies when they couldn’t safely meet in person.
In addition, led by their Senior Vice Chancellor of the Health Sciences Dr. Anantha Shekhar, the University of Pittsburgh instituted a health care advisory group to support and guide the medical response office. This group provided 24/7 advice and aided in communicating public health safety measures university-wide. Two of Pitt Public Health’s department chairs are members of the group — contributing their pandemic and infectious disease expertise to the university’s response and giving them firsthand information. “Having familiar faces fulfilling these important roles was very comforting to us all,” she says.
She notes that it was important to not delay in introducing her vision for the school, which included four strategic imperatives: precision public health; climate and health; diversity, equity and inclusion; and developing the new Bachelor of Science in Public Health program. She says that “the latter has already been accomplished! Each of these imperatives relates directly to the pandemic and our mission: tailoring our responses to any health threat to the most vulnerable communities (precision public health); dealing with an even greater and more persistent threat often resulting in a cumulative health burden (climate change); targeting our actions to those who need it most (DEI); and growing a diverse cadre of emerging public health leaders (BSPH).”