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How Our Academic Health Department Consortium Mobilized to Meet COVID-19

Posted By Carly Levy, MCPHS University, Wednesday, May 20, 2020
Updated: Tuesday, May 19, 2020

In the spring of 2019, the Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences and seven other schools and programs in public health formed an Academic Health Department Consortium (AHD) with the Massachusetts Department of Public Health to help bridge the gap between public health practice and academia. In March 2020, at the request of the Governor of Massachusetts and the COVID-19 command center, the AHD was mobilized to provide support to local boards of health who were responding to the pandemic. On behalf of the AHD, the Massachusetts Health Officers Association (MHOA) surveyed all 351 local boards of health in Massachusetts to identify some of the most pressing needs. In response, the AHD shared resources to develop the Academic Public Health Volunteers Corps (APHVC), a collaboration of 12 academic institutions, MHOA, and the Massachusetts Public Health Association (MPHA).

The mission of the APHVC is to “leverage public health students, alumni, and expert volunteers to augment, amplify, and promote local public health efforts in Massachusetts.” An initial wave of over 600 volunteers were deployed in April to meet emergent needs of over 90 communities across Massachusetts. This summer the APHVC will continue to deploy hundreds of public health volunteers to local boards of health to support many different services such as developing health communication materials, conducting data analysis and GIS mapping, conducting wellness checks and doing community outreach, developing policies and protocols, and more. 

While there have been many successes of the APHVC and AHD mobilization, the focus of this post is to highlight lessons learned from this collaboration for academic institutions, particularly for programs in public health or the health professions. These lessons are from my perspective as a board member of APTR and are not representative of the AHD as a whole:

(1)  Stay true to the mission of the collaboration. For the AHD and the APHVC, this has meant ensuring local boards of health continue to inform the work. Moreover, the response to COVID-19 has been rapidly evolving over the past eight weeks. Whenever discussions arose of where best to focus our efforts, the team worked hard to bring it back to whether or not the proposed action supported local health. This group reminds each other of the hard work being done at the local level and that the AHD and APHVC are there to support, augment, and amplify local health, not work in silos or out of sync with what is needed on the ground.

(2)  Keep health equity and racial justice at the center of the conversation. Article, after article, after article, in both peer-reviewed literature and mainstream media highlights disparities by race/ethnicity, disability status, income, geography, and other social factors. As Meenakshi Verma-Agrawal, Associate Professor of Practice and Assistant MPH Program Director at Simmons University reminded the group, “I think it is important that folks are applying some type of Racial Equity Impact Assessment or similar tool when decision making:

a. What would this [policy/communication] discourage/encourage us from doing?

b. What are the possible unintended outcomes of this [policy/communication]?

c. Does this [policy/communication] address historic/ structural racism?”

(3)  Provide high impact educational practices for students during the response. Although alumni, staff, and faculty from the academic institutions participate in this effort, the majority of the volunteers are students. Collaborating with community partners can provide excellent real-world problems for students to address and serve as a high impact educational practice (HIP). HIPs have been discussed in the education literature for almost two decades. HIPs are teaching and learning practices that have shown to increase success for students, particularly those with diverse backgrounds (Kuh, 2008). Service Learning or community-based learning, as a HIP, is an approach that gives students direct experience with issues they are learning about in a theoretical way (Kuh, 2008).

So there you have it, three considerations while engaging with state and local public health during a pandemic –stay focused on the mission of supporting local health, center health equity and racial justice, and utilize the collaboration as a HIP for students. Are you looking to engage community partners in the COVID-19 response? I would be happy to brainstorm ways to help you mobilize.

Kuh, George D. (2008). High-impact educational practices: What they are, who has access to them, and why they matter. AAC&U, Washington, D.C.


Carly Levy, MPH, CPH

Tags:  Academic Public Health Volunteers Corps 

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