Trust in expertise and institutions is in short supply these days, undermined by a fragmented COVID-19 pandemic response and the misconception that public health scientists in their ivory towers are only concerned with combatting disease to the detriment of the economy, and blind to the needs of those who labor to meet basic needs.
In reality, effective public health is nothing if not pragmatic, and requires a careful balance of economic interests with the health and safety of our communities.
As we learn to live with COVID-19, it is clear that abandoning all restrictions and taking a business-as-usual approach spins the roulette wheel with people’s lives and the long-term health of the country. Likewise, remaining sequestered in our homes with businesses closed is not a sustainable solution and may be equally harmful to our communities.
Our path forward must be flexible, shifting to accommodate new data, an emerging understanding of this disease and the reality of community needs and resources. Public and population health seeks to understand the full spectrum of health and disease, including factors such as socioeconomic disparities, wellness, environmental and social influences, clinical outcomes and policy. It is a field uniquely equipped to develop and guide others along a middle path grounded in science and humanity.
Since the start of the pandemic, more than 70 faculty members across UTHealth School of Public Health’s six campuses have engaged in COVID-19-related work. Early on, data modeling run by the school helped leaders quickly come to grips with the potential impact of the pandemic, facilitating action at all levels of state and local governments. School of Public Health volunteers staffed COVID-19 testing sites, gave protective masks and gloves to day laborers and distributed fresh produce weekly to 45,000 families. Because of these and other actions, Texas’ healthcare system remained stable through the first few months of COVID-19 infections.
But we must be vigilant. Re-opening of nonessential business does not equate a return to normal. It is still necessary to limit the number of customers in a store and to provide adequate space for distancing. People must continue to practice good hygiene and cover their mouths and noses. Manufacturing and warehouse industries should continue staggered shift work. Here, too, public health has a role to play.
Faculty researchers at the UTHealth School of Public Health Southwest Center for Occupational and Environmental Health (SWCOEH), in partnership with the Prevention, Preparedness, and Response (P2R) Academy, and the Houston Area Safety Council (HASC), are hosting Q&A webinars every week regarding the broad guidelines put in place for re-opening business. While these guidelines are rooted in best practices developed by years of industrial and occupational research, they are rarely one-size-fits-all solutions. The primary objective of the webinar is for experts to listen and then interpret — taking feedback from industry groups and working with them to tailor and effectuate broad guidelines to ensure the safety of their employees and customers.
Beyond business, researchers with the UTHealth School of Public Health Michael & Susan Dell Center for Healthy Living are bringing together experts in public health, school building architecture and health education to discuss how schools can plan for safe resumption of classes in the fall.
Talking about how we creatively adjust and adapt to the new realities presented by COVID-19 is critical. Good public health and reopening the economy are not mutually exclusive — but rejecting small inconveniences like wearing masks or maintaining appropriate distances ensures a longer, more arduous battle with the pandemic.