COVID-19: What have we learned? And what needs to change?

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USF’s Dr. Donna Petersen, dean of the College of Public Health, looks back—and ahead

Six months ago, if you asked someone what public health was, you probably would’ve heard something vague. “It has something to do with health care, right? And keeping people healthy?”

Yes. And yes again.

But it’s that and a whole lot more. Especially when seen through the lens of a pandemic. “When we’re at our best, we’re preventing disease and threats to health,” said Donna Petersen, ScD, MHS, CPH, dean of USF’s College of Public Health and senior associate vice president of USF Health. “And when we do that, people forget we’re there. We hope this pandemic has helped people realize that public health matters, and we need to make investments in it.”

College of Public Health Dean Donna Petersen. (Photo courtesy of USF Health)

What else has COVID-19 taught us? We asked Petersen for hindsight and highlights.

Do you think we were prepared for this pandemic—for its scope and virulence?

Public health experts have been preparing for a pandemic for years. We’ve been arguing that we need more trained staff, more materials and supplies, more surge capacity in the health care system. All the things people were saying we didn’t have enough of, and they were right. It’s not that COVID-19 caught us unaware. We’ve been training for this. But we weren’t sufficiently prepared. It’s hard to get people to invest in things that you hope won’t ever be needed.

Stand six feet apart. Wash your hands for 20 seconds. These measures have been drilled into us. And still the virus spreads. Short of a vaccine, what else is in our tool kit to combat COVID-19?

We have good public health messages and good data collection, and we’ve conveyed the information regularly, honestly and transparently. But it’s not always enough. Some people will heed the advice, some will ignore it and still others will think it doesn’t apply to them. So the next step is engineering solutions—for example, those Plexiglas shields you see at the supermarket that protect you and the cashier from transmission of the virus. But that’s just one step. We also have policy directives to try and force people to change behavior, things like the Safer-at-Home order. We don’t like to do this. We hope we can just persuade people to do the right thing. But sometimes you have to force them.

In a way, you and your public health colleagues are soldiers and this is your war. How do you feel about going to battle?

Ideally you want to anticipate and prevent these things. But when that doesn’t happen, for whatever reason, you have to be able to respond. I’m incredibly proud of our alumni, students, faculty and staff all over the world working on the frontlines. And if they’re not on the frontlines, they’re trying to keep other public health efforts going in the wake of COVID-19, because [things like housing and food insecurity] don’t stop because there’s a pandemic. When the Florida Department of Health asked our faculty, students and staff to step up, they did. One hundred fifty have been deployed, many doing contact tracing. And that’s a valuable part of the tool kit. This is what we train people to do and it’s marvelous to see them in action. It’s exciting on one level, but we wish we weren’t doing it. We would much prefer to capture this early and prevent the spread.

College of Public Health instructor and alumna Elizabeth Dunn (center) doing disaster relief work. (Photo by Zack Murrary)

What can we do better next time?

Making sure people have easy access to health care is top on the list. I also hope we recognize the power of paid sick leave. When people have symptoms of any kind of illness, they need to not go to work and still get paid, and they need to be able to get to a health care provider. We still don’t know how many people have not sought care for COVID-19. We’re relying on people who feel sick or who may have been exposed to bring themselves to the attention of a health care worker. And if they don’t have health care coverage, or they’re afraid to take a day off, then we don’t get a good sense of how many are carrying and spreading the virus in the community. Those are compelling issues we have to continue to debate and find a solution for.

So, when all this is said and done, do you think people will know what public health is? I hope people will gain an appreciation and respect for public health and what public health professionals do. I also hope they’ll be more supportive when we ask for investments in the public health infrastructure, so we can effectively respond to challenges in the future. When you open a newspaper today, it is all about COVID-19. But we will come back to a day when we talk about whether it’s safe to eat lettuce. And when we do, I hope people realize that, hey, those are the same people who told me to stay at home and wash my hands. Maybe I should listen to them about the lettuce!

Story by Donna Campisano, USF College of Public Health