'Boots on the ground'

Public Health faculty, students serving in key roles during COVID-19 response

By: 

  • Misti Crane
May 3, 2020
helping hands

The Ohio State University College of Public Health faculty and students have been critical to Ohio’s response to COVID-19, quickly working to offer their expertise in disease modeling and other essential areas since the crisis began to unfold in the United States in late winter.

College experts have informed decision-making by Ohio Department of Health Director Amy Acton (a 1996 graduate of our college) and Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine. That partnership has continued throughout the state’s COVID-19 containment strategy, which currently includes a plan for slowly and carefully reopening businesses shuttered by the pandemic.

“Public health is always aiming to empower communities, to step in and help but also to leave them with the knowledge and resources to sustain change. The work of public health is far from just academic — we are always driven to be boots on the ground,” said Dean Amy Fairchild, whose work in the past two months has included advising and collaborating with university leaders as they grapple with the unprecedented challenges of the pandemic.

“The speed with which we were able to react reflects the strength of relationships with our broader university community and with our health departments. And it also tells you something about how we see our mission. Our college didn’t just jump in quickly, but jumped in to help pull in expertise from across the university,” she said.

CPH faculty are working in several areas as the state relaxes social distancing measures. Among those efforts:

  • Continued modeling work to examine how different social distancing approaches might influence disease transmission.

  • Efforts in the community to support those Ohioans who are most vulnerable and most impacted by this pandemic, including those living in poverty and those who are experiencing domestic violence.

  • Work to bolster Ohio’s response in such a way that is least damaging to the economy.

CPH faculty involved include Amy Ferketich, Maria Gallo, Ayaz Hyder, Eben Kenah, Stanley Lemeshow, Bo Lu, Julianna Nemeth, Alison Norris, Grzegorz Rempala, Elisabeth Root, Eric Sieber, Joseph Tien, Abigail Norris Turner and Mark Weir.

Students are working alongside faculty on many of these endeavors, and are playing a key role in a partnership to help the state with contact tracing to reduce disease transmission.

“Academic-government partnerships are important all of the time but especially during a crisis like the COVID-19 pandemic. These partnerships allow government to expand their capacity and academics to contribute to the immediate needs of the agency and the public,” said Bill Miller, senior associate dean for research and professor of epidemiology.

“Collaboration allows academics to think about and address problems that can have immediate health impact. Our faculty have been working closely with people in the Ohio Department of Health and local health departments to predict what will happen with the pandemic in Ohio, the economic impact of the pandemic, how to conduct contact tracing and how to monitor the spread of infection. These contributions help policymakers in their planning to safely open the state.”

Public Health faculty are also contributing to the plans for relaxed social distancing by working to determine the scope of exposure and potential immunity in the general population — a key question that cannot be answered based on only those who have received tests or been hospitalized. Faculty are also providing expert advice to state lawmakers beyond the governor’s office as they examine appropriate policy responses to the pandemic.

In addition to this support, the college has started its own in-house effort to bring together expert volunteers with community organizations, including local health departments and local businesses that need help navigating these challenging times and those to come. COVID Connect is operated by the college’s Center for Public Health Practice, includes volunteers from throughout the university and beyond, and is beginning to serve as a valuable resource for communities throughout Ohio.

“We’re especially proud of our leadership on COVID Connect — we aren’t just any land grant, after all. We are urban land grant, committed to helping the populations that have been hit first and hardest by COVID-19,” Fairchild said. “But we don’t stop there. We can use our connections with rural communities to make sure that areas without the same access to testing and health care aren’t left behind.”

College leaders are already considering the long-term benefits of the work happening now. COVID Connect won’t disappear when COVID-19 is no longer our primary public health concern. Ideally, it will become a resource for community partners seeking assistance and advice on a variety of challenges, Fairchild said.

“I’d love to see COVID Connect as one of the lasting legacies of the pandemic. Agencies, organizations and local businesses concerned about the health of communities should have a concrete way to meaningfully access both the vast expertise and endless goodwill of the university,” she said.

And the college’s already strong partnerships with the state and local health departments are likely to be bolstered into the future by this time in public health history, Fairchild and Miller said.

“One of the biggest benefits will be an active system of data monitoring and interpretation that will help ensure that we are able to identify and respond to crises quickly. I think the other long-term benefit will be a closer relationship between the Ohio Department of Health and Ohio State, which will help us contribute directly to address other public health issues facing the state,” Miller said.

Furthermore, this experience has amplified the importance of the college’s voice in policymaking decisions, he said.

“Often public health academics focus on understanding the science and leave the policymaking to others. But academics have a lot to offer the policymakers and the people who are actively practicing public health.”

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About The Ohio State University College of Public Health

The Ohio State University College of Public Health is a leader in educating students, creating new knowledge through research, and improving the livelihoods and well-being of people in Ohio and beyond.  The College’s divisions include biostatistics, environmental health sciences, epidemiology, health behavior and health promotion, and health services management and policy.   It is ranked 23rd among all colleges of public health in the U.S. by U.S. News and World Report, and also includes the top 7-ranked MHA degree program.  The College provides leadership and expertise for Ohio and the world through its Center for Health Outcomes and Policy Evaluation Studies (HOPES), Center for Public Health Practice (CPHP), and Center for the Advancement of Tobacco Science (CATS).