For Combating COVID-19, Collaboration Is Key

The COVID-19 pandemic spread to the United States during my last semester at the Boston University School of Public Health. By March of 2020, I was working full-time from my apartment at the time, taking all my classes online, and I hadn’t been outside for days. My parents in Vermont, less than 200 miles away, continued their normal lives, going to work and seeing friends. Businesses and schools were still open, and the thought of staying home or wearing a mask when in public was laughable to my parents and their friends.

As it became clear that the pandemic was here to stay, I tried to figure out the most effective way to leverage my public health degree to contribute to the public health effort in Massachusetts. In April, I joined the Academic Public Health Volunteer Corps (APHVC) to directly assist municipalities with COVID-19 response. My assignment was to be part of a team working with eight towns in south central Massachusetts that share one overworked public health nurse, Ann Labonte.

Disease Monitoring

Our team worked closely with Ann Labonte and Kristin Black, the Health Director for the town of Uxbridge. The first priority was contact tracing. Unlike Boston, with its numerous hospitals and healthcare organizations, many smaller towns in Massachusetts do not have the infrastructure to fully respond to the strain of the COVID-19 pandemic on their community. Kristin echoed this sentiment, saying “The APHVC has allowed small communities like Uxbridge access to students pursuing public health graduate degrees at a time when we are overwhelmed by expanded duties associated with COVID-19.”

Mobilizing Partnerships

After a month of contact tracing, Massachusetts shifted the responsibility of contact tracing to Partners in Health. As our team scaled down contact tracing efforts, we began new projects to enhance collaboration between towns to address and manage the COVID-19 pandemic. Some members of our team began working with the town of Franklin to establish a comprehensive emergency dispensing site (EDS) drive-thru plan. This plan outlines a strategy for delivering flu vaccines, as well as for future COVID-19 vaccinations, in a drive-thru setting. The plan is designed to be adaptable to other towns and cities in the Commonwealth.

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Public Communication

One of the biggest issues communities face is lack of collaboration and communication between sectors. My team is helping to improve cross-sector collaboration as well as consistent and accurate information on public health risks to improve decision making among schools, businesses, boards of health, and state regulatory agencies. We developed over 15 infographics about correct mask usage, COVID-19 symptoms, and best practices to minimize the spread of COVID-19 to share with businesses and residents in our towns. 

Since mid-May, we have been working with the Uxbridge Board of Health on their weekly newsletter to help spread accurate information on COVID-19 to residents. To date we have published nine newsletters to try to maintain up-to-date information and provide timely summaries of new scientific research or counter misinformation on social media.

Policy Guidance and Dissemination

When Governor Baker announced the phase-based reopening plan for the state, members of our team worked with Kristin to develop a comprehensive employee training program to help prepare for the reopening. This program was shared with communities in the Commonwealth for municipal staff training and was also adapted and used by local businesses to train their employees. In the coming weeks we will be working with restaurants in our towns to answer questions about the current regulations and provide detailed, up-to-date information on best practices and state guidelines.

Non-COVID Public Health Needs

Due to the immediate threat of COVID-19, many health departments lack time and resources to address other health concerns (e.g. vector-borne diseases). One of our volunteers is helping the Uxbridge Board of Health organize a conference to discuss regional mosquito control collaboration, with 16 towns invited to participate. Furthermore, in recent weeks we have begun to include information on preventing mosquito-borne diseases (Eastern Equine Encephalitis and West Nile Virus) in the weekly newsletters mentioned above.

Public schools are developing plans for the fall, and we have started to work with them to prepare for the return to school. Preventive care has taken a backseat during the pandemic, and members of my team are working to assist schools with vaccine reminders. Additionally, we are designing a survey to investigate the needs of new mothers that have arisen during the pandemic to help inform healthcare practice and policy.

Towards a Healthier Future

The current pandemic has exposed numerous gaps in our public health infrastructure at both the local and federal level. My team has only just started to address these areas, and so far we provided over 500 hours of volunteer work. I have been honored to work with such an incredible team of people who are passionate about public health and working to help small communities effectively responded to the COVID-19 pandemic.

While it is easy to focus on the negative and scary aspects of the pandemic, it isn’t all bad. Reflecting on the collaboration with the APHVC volunteers, Kristin concluded, “The silver lining of the COVID-19 pandemic has been the new partnership between local public health and higher education. We are grateful for this new partnership and hope it can outlast the pandemic!”

Author Profile

Ruby Barnard-Mayers
Ruby Barnard-Mayers is a volunteer with the APHVC. She graduated from Boston University School of Public Health (BUSPH) in May 2020 with her MPH. Ruby is currently a research assistant at BUSPH in the Epidemiology Department. In September 2020, she will be starting her PhD in Epidemiology at BUSPH.