What can the response to Zika teach us about COVID? COPH team shares insights

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Zika and COVID-19 may be wildly different in transmission, symptoms and outcomes, but according to USF College of Public Health (COPH) Associate Professor Dr. Jennifer Marshall, “for both diseases, widely available, early and accurate testing is critical for patient care, epidemiology and educating the public on their risk.”

Marshall and doctoral student Blake Scott, along with others from the college, are authors of the article “An Evaluation of Florida’s Zika Response Using WHO Health Systems Framework: Can We Apply These Lessons to COVID-19?” published in June in the Maternal and Child Health Journal.

The WHO Health Systems Framework is a tool that’s used to evaluate the strengths and challenges of a health system, or to determine how to implement changes in a healthy system, during public health crises like Zika and COVID-19. 

Mosquito that typically carries Zika. (Photo from iStock)

“Because the framework serves as a broad guide to be applied to the evaluation of any health system, we were able to tailor it to fit the unique situation of locally acquired Zika in Florida and then relate those same lessons learned to the current COVID-19 pandemic,” explained Scott, who previously worked as a Zika epidemiologist. Marshall, a COPH alumna who specializes in maternal and child health and works with the USF Birth Defects Surveillance Program added that “Planning frameworks are useful in program and system evaluations. They provide a holistic, often transdisciplinary view and help identify areas for improvement.”

And what kind of parallels did Marshall and her team find in this study, funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and Florida Birth Defects Registry? There’s the obvious—that both diseases are serious and patients may require a significant response from the health care community. What also came to light was the issue of health disparities and how some populations and communities suffered disproportionately. Thirdly, the two diseases share the same need for widely available, accurate testing and consistent public health messaging.

iStock image

“From the Zika outbreak, we saw that a strong campaign of evidence-based messaging to the public was key to protecting those at the greatest risk,” remarked Scott, “and that’s also true for the current COVID-19 pandemic as well. It was also observed that the widely available Zika testing the State of Florida used early in the local outbreak was critically important. More than six months into the pandemic, many areas of the US are still facing COVID-19 testing-supply shortages.”

Marshall and her team say the big takeaways are the need for everyone to do their part in tamping down pandemics and epidemics, no matter how simple the measure, and to learn from past events.

“Even if it’s as small as dumping standing water to prevent mosquito breeding or wearing a mask when you go to the grocery store, we all have a role to play in protecting the public’s health,” said Marshall. “The role of system leaders, the media and public health and other infrastructure agencies were also highlighted in this article. By taking the time to evaluate the lessons learned from previous public health events, we might do better responding to the next one. Even if the diseases and scenarios are very different.”

Story by Donna Campisano, USF College of Public Health