University of Texas Medical Branch School of Public and Population Health

Houston, TX

When COVID first emerged as a dire threat at the University of Texas Medical Branch School of Public and Population Health, Dean, ad interim, Kristen Peek noted there were a lot of questions: “First, how do we keep our faculty, staff and students safe? How are we going to teach everyone and continue to do our jobs with this threat? How long is this going to last? How do we keep members of our community safe? And of course — how can we help? At that point, we were an accredited public health program within a school of medicine department, so for ‘jurisdiction’ purposes, we were reaching out to our local health authority, the county health district and our president to see what we could do to help with volunteering (if safe), testing, tracing, etc.” 

With that, they put together command task force meetings with all leadership present to deal with clinical, educational, research and public health issues arising in the university and in the surrounding communities. Dean Peek notes, “So we planned through those meetings and our program supported the university’s initiatives where they could through contact tracing and volunteering and communicating with the public (e.g., school systems). Education-wise, we participated in planning of online platforms and constantly checked on our students.”   

Many of their faculty quickly shifted research energy to investigating the impact of COVID-19 on mental, physical and financial health, especially among underrepresented minority populations. They had two large-scale cohort studies on older adults of Mexican descent, and both Principal Investigators immediately focused on the impact of COVID-19 in those studies. Peek adds, “I like to think we had an impact on stabilization in our communities through communication and volunteering.” 

But Peek points to fear and lack of resources as major challenges. “Fear because no one knew where this was going and how long it was going to last — and everyone was afraid. So, it was important to provide straightforward leadership, comfort and action-oriented goals to help everyone stay focused. Then, all resources got locked down. How are we to survive and thrive under such circumstances? — that was one of the biggest challenges that we faced.” 

She notes lessons learned. “It did hit home that communication and trust were so incredibly important in responding to a pandemic. In addition, politics played a much more important role than I thought. Even with lives at stake. It was quite shocking to me. Getting out in front of the issues, clear communication and fostering trust are very important in public health responses.”

Find information about the work done over the past few years

Learn more about the steps taken to create these powerful accounts from academic institutions around the country

Read the features

Read the accounts of other public health institutions on their work around the COVID-19 pandemic.