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On the Front Lines of the Coronavirus Crisis

Montclair State’s graduate students, alumni play role in public health emergency

Posted in: Graduate School, Health, University

People in drive thru for coronavirus testing
Photojournalist Thomas E. Franklin, an assistant professor in Montclair State’s School of Communication and Media, has been on the front lines documenting this national emergency. Shown, New Jersey residents get tested for COVID-19 at the Bergen County drive-through center. Photo by Thomas E. Franklin

With the rapid spread of the coronavirus and government orders to stay home, public health alumni and graduate students at Montclair State University find themselves in the center of the response to the coronavirus pandemic, calming frightened residents, tracing the contacts of the ill, and working to control the accelerating outbreak.

“When you work for a health department, you truly drop everything else and a situation like this becomes the sole priority for everyone. It’s all hands on deck,” said Layal Helwani, a health educator for the Clifton Health Department.

Helwani is a graduate student in the Master of Public Health (MPH). The program, marking its 10th year, is at the forefront of the crisis, providing education, commentary, leadership and comfort both on and off campus. “I never would have imagined that the situation with COVID-19 would escalate as quickly as it did,” said Helwani, who, along with others on the front lines with ties to Montclair State, are sharing their stories as the emergency intensifies.

“This is truly a remarkable moment they are living,” said Professor Lisa Lieberman, who reached out on a listserv to the group of graduate students, alumni and faculty. “I got email after email after email back about their experiences.”

‘No Clearer Lesson’

In California, the program’s first graduate, Tosan O. Boyo ’11 MPH, reported he was asked to step out of his role in hospital operations to manage the COVID-19 Operations Center for the city and county of San Francisco. The Bay Area was the first place in the nation to pass a shelter-in-place law to address the coronavirus pandemic.

“It’s been a whirlwind,” Boyo said, citing the challenges of constantly changing information. With the lockdown, “we’re making progress,” he said. “We’re anticipating its impact on flattening the curve will be significant.”

As U.S. cases surge, graduate students are learning firsthand how the lag and lapses in testing will make it difficult to detect the outbreak’s true spread. “We are living what we talk about in public health,” Lieberman said. “As a teacher of public health, there could not be a clearer lesson. I wish I didn’t have to teach it in real-time.”

In a blog born of the pandemic, MPH Thoughts, Kat DeMarco, a MPH student studying community health education, shared the story of a relative who was told to avoid all testing centers due to her other serious health concerns. “Although isolation might ensure her safety and the safety of others, what does this mean for epidemiological calculations, and how will this impact the way we handle the pandemic?”

Media Looks to Faculty Experts

Montclair State Public Health Professor Stephanie Silvera, an epidemiologist, has provided the news media with expert insight into the urgency needed to minimize the spread of COVID-19. New data suggests a worst-case scenario of 1 in 7 New Jersey residents becoming ill. Silvera said hospitals could become inundated with patients they lack the beds to care for.

“We only have so many hospital beds and so many ventilators,” Silvera told the Star-Ledger, the state’s largest newspaper. “If you think of it just from a hospital bed perspective, we’re still going to have people who have heart attacks and strokes and need to be in the hospital and need treatment to survive.”

“You’re talking about making decisions about who’s going to survive and who’s not.”

Life on the Front Lines

In Clifton, Helwani has been assisting Health Officer John Biegel, an adjunct professor in Montclair State’s Public Health program, with daily updates to the community.

“We have been receiving calls nonstop, and through our calls, we have been educating the public on what we know about COVID-19, where testing is available – although this has been a challenge – and what the Governor’s executive orders mean for residents and businesses,” Helwani said.

“In the weeks ahead, all of us will be playing a more active role in following up with contacts of positive cases, both informing contacts and conducting interviews.”

As Montclair State faculty across campus prepared for online learning, Professor Amanda Birnbaum, the Public Health department’s chairperson, co-hosted an online workshop with Nursing Dean Janice Smolowitz and University Health Center Director Patricia Ruiz, on talking with students about COVID-19. Offered through the Office for Faculty Advancement, the workshop was well-attended by faculty and staff from across the University.

“The hunger for information and ways to support our students was evident from participants’ questions and ideas,” Birnbaum said.

“I was grateful for the opportunity to share a public health perspective, helping colleagues think about how the social and economic impacts of pandemic mitigation efforts can amplify health disparities, and how we can think about responding in ways that try to promote equity.”

In addition to messaging about how to support our students, the need to practice self-care to prevent burnout is another important public health message.

“These past couple of weeks have been super stressful and I just feel extremely drained after working and hearing these updates,” said Deep Shah ’19, a pharmacy technician at a long-term care facility.

Shah graduated from Montclair State with a degree in Biology and is continuing his graduate studies in the MPH program. The company where he works supplies medication to nursing homes and hospitals across New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania and Connecticut. “It’s expected that the patients will need their medications for the several months of isolation to come,” he said.

“We will be sending out approximately 500,000 prescriptions to make sure our patients are fully stocked on their medications and do not run out,” Shah said.

“Although the situation the world has found itself in at this moment is far from ideal,” said Shira Morris ’18, program coordinator for the NYU Langone Comprehensive Program on Obesity|NYU School of Medicine, “it is amazing to see the collaboration of institutions and the sharing of resources to help mitigate the effect that COVID-19 is having on its victims – victims including COVID-19 patients, patients who need other medical assistance, health care systems, businesses, the economy, and the list goes on.”

In an email to her graduate students, Lieberman recalled having “come of age” as a public health professional during the early days of the HIV epidemic. “I have often talked about the ways in which it defined my career. It is likely that this, too, will begin to define yours.”

Story by staff writer Marilyn Joyce Lehren