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YSPH Responds to a Pandemic

March 27, 2020
by Michael Greenwood

As the coronavirus pandemic spreads rapidly in Connecticut and beyond, members of the Yale School of Public Health community (students, faculty, staff and alumni) are mobilizing to assist those in need in the Elm City.

The situation is dire and growing more so. On March 26 in the two New Haven campuses of Yale-New Haven Hospital (YNHH) there were:

  • 79 COVID-19 patients hospitalized (up from 69 the previous day); 18 of these patients are in ICU, 14 of whom are on ventilators.
  • 21 patients have died in Connecticut through March 26; Two COVID-19 deaths in New Haven happened to people approximately 48 and 58 years old. Some patients have been transferred from New York City to YNHH.

The response of YSPH’s volunteers has been diverse and is helping residents in ways big and small. Students, for example, are compiling weekly reports with case numbers, precaution advisories and other important information on the disease to help the community stay informed. Others are volunteering to do contact tracing to help prevent the spread of the disease. Still others are food shopping for the elderly, who are particularly vulnerable to the disease, to lessen their chances of infection.

Meanwhile, faculty researchers with infectious disease expertise are serving as advisors helping to set global health policy, collaborating with government agencies on emergency responses, developing diagnostic tests and potential treatments for COVID-19, and crafting plans to help vulnerable populations in New Haven and beyond. Throughout the crisis, many of them have also provided science-based guidance to the general public through scores of media interviews about the health threats posed by COVID-19.

“This is a crisis that demands a sustained and multifaceted response,” said Dean Sten Vermund. “I have been amazed and humbled by the energy and commitment that I see happening all around me as people rush to help in myriad ways. These actions are making a difference and represent the ethos of what public health is and needs to be.”

COVID Newsletter

Acting on their own initiative to help during a growing crisis, two M.P.H. students—Jeanette Jiang and Emily Peterson, with the assistance of Professor Robert Heimer—created and now maintain a recurring newsletter that provides timely and well-sourced information on the pandemic in a way that can be easily understood by diverse audiences.

The newsletter—COVID-19 Updated Data and Developments—is published on the YSPH website every few days and is focused on response efforts and updates in Connecticut and neighboring Rhode Island.

“This pandemic provides a unique opportunity to understand the significance of public health and we thought it would be important to participate in this volunteer effort,” said Jiang and Peterson. “As YSPH students, this is a rare, real-world experience to demonstrate what we have learned in the classroom and contribute to the community. Being involved in such a quickly developing project has given us better insight into what our future careers as public health practitioners may hold.”

The experience so far has been eye-opening, they said.

Newspapers and magazines all around the world are releasing large amounts of information daily and it can be overwhelming for people to follow. The YSPH newsletter tries to focus the information on critical developments with the pandemic that impact daily life. Furthermore, there is a lot of disinformation on the internet that the newsletter seeks to counter with trustworthy information.

Contact Tracing

When the highly infectious virus that causes COVID-19 began to take hold in Connecticut, Yale medical providers put out a call for help tracking and mitigating the virus’ spread in New Haven and the Yale community.

They found it at YSPH, were nearly 50 students, staff and faculty have volunteered to help track individuals that may have been exposed to the virus, a labor-intensive public health practice known as “contact tracing.”

Dean Vermund helped coordinate the school’s response. After hearing of the need for assistance, Vermund immediately turned to the school’s Connecticut Emerging Infections Program (EIP), which has extensive experience reaching out to community members on health-related matters. The EIP is also a partnership with the Connecticut Department of Public Health (DPH), which provided training for the contact tracing.

Once the call for volunteers went out, the response was immediate, said Professor Linda Niccolai, director of CT EIP at Yale. The volunteer initiative is also being managed by James Meek, associate director of CT EIP and a YSPH lecturer, and Mayur Desai, associate professor.

“I have been so impressed with the commitment of the YSPH community to step up and volunteer for this effort,” said Niccolai. “Their collective desire to contribute to controlling this pandemic is truly amazing.”

As notification of individuals with possible exposure comes in from health care providers, the volunteers are tasked with calling those people to provide important information about self-isolating and self-monitoring for symptoms, using guidance from the CDC. The volunteers do not take the initial contact information from anyone testing positive for COVID-19.

Telephone Bank

Social media is helping the Yale and New Haven communities stay up to date on the current pandemic as we combat the spread of COVID-19. However, when our devices are flooded with too much information, including some that is outdated or even fabricated, it is vital that people have a source that is knowledgeable and trustworthy.

To this end, Yale Health has established a coronavirus telephone bank. In response to this initiative, more than 80 Yale School of Public Health students, faculty and staff with training in epidemiology and community outreach have volunteered to help answer calls. The volunteers are sharing information about COVID-19 symptoms, disease monitoring, testing, prevention measures and other advisories in response to questions raised by members of the Yale and New Haven communities.

Shopping for Seniors

Many government and public health organizations are advising people not to leave their homes unless it is to purchase groceries or pick up medications. Some grocery store chains are implementing special shopping hours reserved for citizens over the age of 60 or 65 in order to limit their possible exposure to the virus. These citizens are especially vulnerable to COVID-19, according to medical experts.

Realizing a need to help older individuals safely obtain the important staples they need during the ongoing crisis, Yale School of Public Health students Samantha Stone (health policy) and Benjamin Rosen (health care management) are teaming up with the Jewish Family Service (JFS) of Connecticut to deliver food and other goods to area seniors and others for whom getting to the store can be difficult if not dangerous.

The “Supermarketing for Seniors” initiative provides free grocery shopping for home-bound individuals or anyone over the age of 60. This program runs year-round to provide non-denominational shopping services and quality time with the elderly. However, during the current COVID-19 breakout, it has been adjusted with a greater focus on secure grocery-list exchanges and socially distant grocery delivery-drops either through the local JFS office or in conjunction with their assisted living organizations.

Advocacy and Information

Information and communication are a vital part of the public health response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

On March 19, the Yale School of Public Health released a 90-minute virtual ‘town hall’ video with eight experts from Yale and New Haven presenting the latest science-based information on the disease, including such topics as symptoms, social distancing, individual legal rights and other important areas. The panelists (all of whom were connected remotely) then answered some of the 400 questions submitted by members of the Yale and New Haven communities. YSPH Assistant Professor Gregg Gonsalves moderated the event. It was the second town hall on the outbreak hosted by the school. The first can be seen here.

In other attempts to keep the public informed, YSPH scientists are stepping out of their labs to participate in numerous interviews with media outlets in New Haven, the United States and around the world. YSPH experts Albert Ko, Gregg Gonsalves, Nathan Grubaugh, James Hamblin, Jason Schwartz, Howard Forman and others have discussed aspects of COVID-19 with CNN, MSNBC, CBS, NBC, BBC, the New York Times, The Atlantic, The Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post, among many other outlets.

Meanwhile, YSPH Assistant Professor Xi Chen has done numerous interviews with Chinese media and Associate Professor Kaveh Khoshnood has become an expert source for media in the Middle East, where the outbreak is extracting a serious toll.

“I consider it my duty,” Chen said of the interviews. He did the first YSPH interview on COVID-19 back in January, a time when the virus still seemed an amorphous threat to many Americans. “As countries are going through various stages of this unprecedented crisis, mutual learning and international coordination in the battle against such a pandemic have never been more important. Through communicating with global media, I sincerely hope to help bridge this gap.”

A larger sampling of YSPH media coverage can be found on the school’s website.

United Way

Understanding that COVID-19 would impact the volunteer workforce that supports many community-based organizations, the Yale School of Public Health and the Yale School of Medicine’s Center for Research and Engagement partnered with United Way of Greater New Haven (UWGNH) to develop a volunteer portal.

This platform also includes other urgent needs, like supply requests, as well as up-to-date information on community resources. YSPH faculty, staff and students also assist with crafting guidelines for safe volunteering practices which have been shared with other universities and is also providing UWGNH with updated COVID-19 content for its portal.

Food for Pantries

Food pantries and soup kitchen programs can be a lifeline for medically vulnerable individuals, many of whom have become homebound during the current COVID-19 pandemic. As the number of homebound citizens in Greater New Haven continues to increase, the need for food delivery to sustain people’s daily nutritional needs is growing dramatically.

The Coordinated Food Assistance Network (CFAN), a collaborative that aims to create a unified and equitable system of food assistance for all residents of Greater New Haven, is responding to this critical need. CFAN has established a COVID-19 emergency food delivery program to assist pantry clients during this difficult time.

CFAN is made up of more than 60 individuals representing food assistance programs (pantries and soup kitchens) and community partners from the New Haven area. The group was organized by the Community Alliance for Research and Engagement (CARE), which is co-housed at the Yale School of Public Health and Southern Connecticut State University.

Others collaborating on the emergency food distribution effort are New Haven’s Food Systems Policy Division, led by Food System Policy Director, Latha Swamy, and the United Way of Greater New Haven.

“The number of people needing delivery will only increase, and there are currently very limited resources to deliver food to homebound individuals in New Haven,” said Alycia Santilli, CARE’s director. “This emergency food delivery program helps fill this gap.”

CFAN has also been instrumental in supporting the procurement and distribution of food to New Haven’s homeless population during the COVID-19 crisis and has advocated to keep pantries open by implementing proper public health and safety precautions.

To ensure the safety of all volunteers and staff serving and delivering food through the emergency food system, including the newly developed delivery program, CARE collaborated with the New Haven Health Department to develop public health prevention measures to be followed by all pantries, kitchens and other food programs across the city.

“While there is much work happening now, there is much more work to be done,” said Kathleen O’Connor-Duffany, PhD, deputy director of the YSPH Office of Public Health Practice and director of research and evaluation for CARE. “With the anticipated need expected to continue to increase, our programs need resources, volunteers, and capacity to expand, if we are going to meet the crisis needs of our community.”

Anyone interested in assisting in these efforts can contact O’Connor-Duffany or Santilli for further information. Those interested in volunteering can complete this form.

Submitted by Denise Meyer on March 27, 2020