Dean's Office

Donna J. Petersen, ScD, MHS, CPH
Donna J. Petersen

Dean's Message

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 is glaringly, and frighteningly, evident now. COVID-19 has 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 be a story of public health prevention triumphing over a virus may not have 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. Affecting largely a younger, unvaccinated population, causing severe illness, and once again straining our hospitals, first responders and health care workers beyond their limits, it can also infect those fully vaccinated who can in turn transmit the virus to others. Fully vaccinated persons remain far less likely to become infected, are infectious for a shorter time, have only mild symptoms, do not need medical care, and do not die. Yet the risk remains, and we are left with where we started; all the technology in the world cannot save us if we won’t save ourselves. Mask wearing, social distancing, and hand washing remain our best defenses. The question is, are we capable of defending ourselves or will our inability to accept these simple conditions in the end defeat us?

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 have been actively engaged throughout the pandemic, at the university, in our local communities, and around the world. I am proud of what we have accomplished though there is much more good work to be done. 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.

Donna J. Petersen, ScD, MHS, CPH
Welcome from Dean Peterson