In 1992, top public health researchers published a landmark study about global pandemic preparedness. The paper, which included detailed strategies on everything from recognizing potential outbreaks to bolstering a national stockpile of protective equipment, helped stem subsequent plagues and encouraged sweeping changes in public health policy for the next two decades.
Now, nearly a year after the United States began its lockdown measures against the novel coronavirus, Georgetown University Professor Rebecca Katz said she gets frustrated even thinking about that study. The government, she said, hadn’t learned very much at all from it.
“The biggest failure of our community might have been the failure of imagination. We all intellectually knew that a pandemic was a possibility. We also knew exactly where the fault lines were,” she said. “Maybe the important lesson is that we need to yell louder and make sure that we are collectively heard when we talk about the importance of preparedness.”
Katz, who graduated from the Yale School of Public Health in 1998, now serves as an advisor for the Biden administration’s COVID-19 task force. She told an online gathering at the Yale School of Public Health on Feb. 25 about the lessons that should be learned about the current pandemic — and the ways in which public health leaders can prevent another one.
Her Dean’s Lecture, which was co-hosted by YSPH’s Office of Alumni Affairs, also explored the various pandemic warning signs that her team at Georgetown University Medical Center’s Center for Global Health Sciences and Security has compiled over the past year. The multidisciplinary group has been working to track public health policy changes and court challenges related to COVID-19, and has put together guides for municipal leaders around the world on containing epidemics.
That’s not all: One member of her team even made a children’s book on the coronavirus, and over the summer, students helped create a guide on protesting safely amid a pandemic.
All of this, she said, is an effort to use public health expertise for improving outcomes around the world — and not just for the current pandemic. Still, Katz said that the next outbreaks may still be tough to contain, even with such an intense focus on analyzing COVID-19.
“We’re not bad at fighting the last war. We know how to fight the last war,” she said. “But do we know how to fight the next war? I don’t know.”
Her talk included a question-and-answer session with YSPH Professor Albert Ko. In response to a question Ko posed on behalf of an attendee about the importance of simulations in responding to future pandemics, Katz said the time isn’t right for that work — but in the future, it will have extensive value.
“The last thing you want to do is pull people away from your day jobs when you’re in the process of saving lives,” she said. “But simulations have always been critical for moving thinking forward, moving policy forward, and for identifying where all the gaps are.
“The military has always done this: We exercised. Thinking about how to exercise from the local level to the international level, I think, is critical.”