West Virginia University School of Public Health

Morgantown, WV

At West Virginia University, the Dean of the School of Public Health Jeff Coben explains that their pandemic response started at home. “As a land-grant institution, we are committed to supporting the health and well-being of West Virginians — it’s one of our top priorities,” Dr. Coben explains. “Our first action was to meet with our governor, his team and others across the state to determine how we could help and how we could support the statewide response. Shortly thereafter, the governor identified Clay Marsh, MD, who leads the academic health sciences center of West Virginia University as chancellor and executive dean, as West Virginia’s COVID-19/Coronavirus Czar — a role that required a significant commitment of time and effort. To help address Dr. Marsh’s responsibilities on the WVU Health Sciences campus, individuals across our campus and throughout the University pitched in as a team to provide support while he fulfilled his duties as Coronavirus Czar.” 

Contact tracing was one of the first initiatives launched at West Virginia University. Coben says, “We were one of the first universities in the country to launch a contact tracing training program. We knew the state would need to scale up those efforts quickly, so in order to do that, our team — along with colleagues from WVU, the West Virginia National Guard and Johns Hopkins University — stood up an online training program to enable individuals to learn about contact tracing and obtain certification. We trained over 200 people across the state, exceeding West Virginia’s anticipated need for contact tracers.” 

“Other COVID-19 tracking efforts within the School of Public Health involved mapping, modeling and monitoring — collective efforts that yielded important results and valuable insights to both our university and statewide communities. For instance, our Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics used geographic data to identify health disparities related to risk and access to care, revealing a shortage of COVID-19 testing among communities of color and increased rates of testing and positivity in areas of food insecurity within West Virginia.  

Additional efforts spanned from leading N95 mask-fit testing for the campus and health care communities to collaborating on the development of alternative personal protective equipment during mask shortages. In partnership with others, they also took the lead in standing up data dashboards that ultimately increased access to critical information, such as testing site and vaccine clinic locations and infection rates. 

An important part of leading a strong response is listening. Coben shares, “Being a part of a larger effort means you must first seek to understand and then seek to be understood. I spent a lot of time listening and gaining an understanding of other leaders’ concerns. It was important for me to express what the best practices were from a public health and medical perspective, but it was equally important for me to first understand other points of view and the concerns of their respective constituents. Rather than taking a dogmatic approach — one that, potentially, others might have ‘closed the door on’ — it was better for me to have a seat at the table and continue to try to work with people, while continuing to express what I felt was the best approach from a public health perspective and recognizing that there were many different ‘pulls and pushes’ on people and the stakeholders they represented as we responded to the pandemic as an institution. Had I been overly dogmatic and not stayed at the table, things may have gone in a different direction and not as well as they did, despite the ever-evolving challenges.” 

And throughout it all, Coben says, “Collaboration is key. We can’t do this alone; we have to collaborate not just with traditional partners but nontraditional partners, too. As we address public health concerns, traditional partners have typically included local and state health departments, health care providers, nurses, social workers, etc. Non-traditional partners that we need to think more about are communications professionals, including those working in social media, health educators and people in the community, among others. Collaboration is key to improving our outreach and meeting people where they are.” 

Reflecting on the pandemic so far, Coben says, “Regarding change, I think one of the things that the COVID-19 pandemic has revealed is that over the years, across the nation, there has been a weakening of the public health system and infrastructure. Public health is something that people tend to forget about when COVID-19 — and other issues like it — is no longer an issue. It’s easy to cut budgets when you’re not at the top of somebody’s thought processes. And when budgets get cut, then people get cut. And when people get cut, services get cut, ultimately leading to a situation where you have very small local health departments that serve the entire population of the county, and that doesn’t work. We need sustained infrastructure development and to develop the public health workforce at the local, state and national levels. An ongoing, significant level of investment in public health is necessary in order to keep all of us safe and healthy for the future.”

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