University of South Florida College of Public Health

Tampa, FL

According to University of South Florida College of Public Health Dean Donna Petersen, “I had crafted a communication for our relatively new president to send to the university community in late February 2020, as we had been watching [the COVID-19 outbreak] evolve from the initial reports out of Wuhan to the first cases on U.S. soil. We literally said, once we had sent it out, ‘Well, now we just wait for the first case in this area,’ and that very weekend, the first case in the Tampa Bay region was reported. Monday morning, we were summoned to a meeting by our president, a task force was created and I was named its chair.” 

With the task force established, the university set to work to first gather any information that was available. They were data-driven from the very beginning. Says Dean Petersen, “Having an academic health center on our campus and long-standing excellent relationships with our colleagues in the Florida Department of Health, the Florida Division of Emergency Management, County Government (we have a footprint in four counties) and elected officials allowed us to draw upon expertise and be a resource at the same time. We started making those connections immediately. We also committed to transparency at the outset and immediately set up webpages, email inboxes and a data dashboard to track case activity on our campuses. I spoke to any group who would have me — we held virtual town halls with staff, faculty, students, parents. We made ourselves available to our local colleagues, the media and to myriad organizations in the community.” 

She continues, “On campus, there was already a high degree of credibility and trust with our emergency management division because of our rather frequent hurricanes. People seemed to, without hesitation, reach out to ask us questions, share ideas and offer to help. The task force was slightly modified to encompass additional parties than just those who would normally engage in emergency response, and that group met regularly and worked at a very high level. There was a high degree of trust in the group, and we were able to encourage and then capitalize on the creativity of our colleagues. People ransacked every closet on campus looking for stashed PPE.” 

She notes that “one of our basic scientists designed a nasal swab that could be quickly 3D printed. Millions of these have been distributed around the world. Another designed a pooled-testing protocol that allowed us to do our own testing (we don’t have a CLIA certified lab so we could not do individual testing on campus). Our IT people came up with creative solutions, not only how to manage remote learning and remote services, but how to expand our database capability, design a ‘return to campus’ survey that allowed us to draw random samples for testing and allow everyone to complete a daily symptom checker. Our facilities team mapped out spaces, rearranged furniture, upgraded air handlers, placed signage, wrapped up drinking fountains, and distributed face masks and hand sanitizers. We sent over 150 public health students to serve as contact tracers and extended the local public health workforce by deputizing them to do contact tracing on our campuses. On and on — all the while, managing cases, guiding anxious people, supporting families, eventually linking to testing and ultimately to vaccinations. We had great scientists feeding us information so that we could anticipate the impacts of the virus; when we didn’t, we were in a position to react swiftly, and we did.”  

But there were challenges. According to Dean Petersen, “Early on, [there was a] challenge of some individuals professing their rights to autonomy versus our policies that were designed to protect the greater good. I could usually effect some kind of compromise with these individuals, but not always. We had built in consequences for failure to follow these policies but at the end of the day, university leadership didn’t feel that it could actually enforce them. The bigger challenge was politics. We had spent months designing a really elegant vaccine reporting system only to have the Florida legislature in the waning hours of the 2021 legislative session pass a law that prohibited us from asking. As a state university, we must follow the direction of State Board of Governors, who oversee the university system, and the governor who determines our budget. We did our best to work within these constraints, but it was challenging when the data conflicted with the guidance we were receiving. In the end, we achieved the best record in the state system; we had the fewest reported cases by far, and as far as we know, the fewest deaths.” 

She points to lessons to be learned: “We are terrible at communicating a message people hear the way we intend it. We were completely ill-equipped to cut through the noise of all the social media channels. We were too slow to respond — pretty much every time, as things kept changing — and we were not good at countering all the misinformation out there. I wish I knew how to do this, but somehow, we have to restore the idea that we are interdependent on each other, that there are reasons we set aside our individual desires to act on behalf of the greater good. That it is the right thing to do, to make sacrifices for others. I met some great people along the way who understood this and worked hard to advocate but these messages were lost or scoffed at. Very sad.”

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