Dear College of Public Health faculty, staff, and students,
Public health is what we do collectively to create conditions in which people can be healthy. And everyone wants to be healthy. The challenge comes with the “collective” part as we don’t often agree on what conditions we are willing to accept to enable everyone to enjoy a full state of health. This tension has been true throughout our history but was glaringly, and frighteningly, evident during the pandemic. COVID-19 challenged us in ways we could never have imagined. On the one hand, the deep knowledge we have about infectious diseases allowed us to quickly identify the cause of this mysterious illness. Sophisticated surveillance systems allowed us to track it in real time as it spread around the globe. Advanced technologies allowed us to devise testing materials, to determine the best courses of treatment, and to develop a highly effective vaccine in record time. Our humanity was evident as well, as scores of volunteers stepped up to support our overburdened health care system by staffing test sites, making and distributing masks, serving as contact tracers, and communicating facts as they became known.
But what should have been a story of public health prevention triumphing over a virus has not had a happy ending. Mistrust of governmental agencies and scientists fueled by innocent misinformation and malicious disinformation sowed seeds of doubt. People questioned whether the virus was real. Testing was seen as intrusive; mask mandates a violation of civil liberties. The communication of new knowledge as it evolved in real time was perceived as waffling incompetence or deliberate subterfuge. Getting a clear message through the noise proved almost impossible. And the outsized political response to what was already a complicated situation, was stifling at best, detrimental at worst.
What should have been heralded as a miracle of modern science, the release of the first mRNA vaccine against a coronavirus was instead met with skepticism. Those who lined up early were relieved, joyful. Others who waited wanted more information, greater assurance. Those who refused were derisive. Like a course of antibiotics that, if not completed, can spawn a new antibiotic-resistant strain of bacteria, our collective unwillingness to complete a population-wide “course” of vaccination allowed a new variant of the virus to wreak havoc on us all. And it could again as we await new variants, or worse, another virus bridging the animal-human divide with a higher case fatality rate such as avian flu. Despite all we now know, the risk remains, and we are left where we started; all the technology in the world cannot save us if we won’t save ourselves.
The USF College of Public Health remains a beacon guiding communities to health. Our innovative education and transformational research programs are led by faculty dedicated to practicing their passions in service to the public’s health. We remain actively engaged in scientific pursuits to rid the world of malaria, eliminate maternal mortality, and achieve health equity. We are also engaged in new learning pursuits in leadership development, in workforce development, and in professional development through our new Lifelong Learning Academy. Our curriculum is getting a thorough review to assure its relevancy and quality and our community partnerships grow stronger, whether in urban gardening, or suicide prevention. There is so much good work to do in service to the public’s health and I am proud of every member of our community for what they do every day to make life better for us all. If you are just joining us, we welcome you. If you are curious about us, please reach out and learn more. Find how your place in public health can help you make a difference in your world.